Demonstration milestone has re-energized plutonium production in the United States. Credit: DOE/ORNL

Demonstration milestone has re-energized plutonium production in the United States.
Credit: DOE/ORNL

 

The first U.S. production in several decades of plutonium-238 is being energetically spotlighted by NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE).

Researchers at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee have restored a U.S. capability dormant for nearly 30 years.

Roughly the mass of a golf ball, the 50 grams of plutonium-238 means good news for future deep space missions.

 

Next gen orbiters, landers and rovers

“This significant achievement by our teammates at DOE signals a new renaissance in the exploration of our solar system,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington in a DOE press statement.

Radioisotope power system enables exploration by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Radioisotope power system enables exploration by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“Radioisotope power systems are a key tool to power the next generation of planetary orbiters, landers and rovers in our quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe,” Grunsfeld said.

Multi-Mission success

Radioisotope power systems convert heat from the natural radioactive decay of the isotope plutonium-238 into electricity.

For NASA, these systems have powered, for example, the Viking lander missions to Mars, the Voyager spacecraft, and more recently they have energized the now on the prowl Curiosity Mars Rover and the New Horizons spacecraft that sailed past Pluto earlier this year.

The currently available radioisotope power system is called the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG).

The next NASA mission planning to use an MMRTG is NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Two (unfueled) MMRTGs are currently built and in storage at DOE facilities; one is reserved for Mars 2020, and the other could be used on a future mission. Fabrication of the fuel pellets for the Mars 2020 MMRTG — using the existing U.S. supply of plutonium dioxide — is already underway.

NASA’s Radioisotope Power System (RPS) program, managed by NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, is funding the development of new, higher efficiency thermoelectric materials that could be incorporated into a next-generation enhanced MMRTG that would provide about 25 percent more power at the start of a typical mission, and 50 percent more power at the end of a mission.

Artist's view of NASA's nuclear powered New Horizons spacecraft as it passes Pluto and Pluto's largest moon, Charon, last July. Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

Artist’s view of NASA’s nuclear powered New Horizons spacecraft as it passes Pluto and Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, last July.
Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

Increased production

Given “continued coordination,” explains the DOE, both agencies plan to increase production following the recent demonstration milestone success. That increase will being with 300 to 400 grams (about 12 ounces) of plutonium dioxide per year.

After implementing greater automation and scaling up the process, ORNL will produce an average of 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) in subsequent years, the DOE explains.

“Once we automate and scale up the process, the nation will have a long-range capability to produce radioisotope power systems such as those used by NASA for deep space exploration,” said ORNL’s Bob Wham, who leads the project for the lab’s Nuclear Security and Isotope Technology Division.

The reaching of the demonstration milestone at ORNL comes two years after NASA began funding the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy through a roughly $15 million per year effort to revive the department’s capability to make plutonium-238.

For more information, go to:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=16&v=VRJT6SKwuHg&noredirect=1

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