Plutonium production grows and is essential for space exploration

Plutonium production grows and is essential for space exploration

The production of plutonium grows because of the needs of the space

In the spring of 2018, Voyager 2 spacecraft went into space and was able to overcome 18 billion km. This important expedition for all mankind is implemented using nuclear fusion. Similar technologies were already applied for spaceships that have been flying for the last decades. On devices of this type are radioisotope thermoelectric generators – RTGs. They are based on the release of heat as a result of the decay of radioactive elements. So, with the destruction of plutonium-238, heat is produced, which then turns into electricity, so the spacecraft can not depend on sunlight. Thus, the production of plutonium becomes a very urgent task if humanity wants to conquer the cosmic depths.

Plutonium production becomes increasingly important

RTGs limit humanity’s desire to visit space. If we intend to send spaceships more often and further, we cannot hope for all the obsolete technologies that have been used recently. Plutonium-238 is almost depleted on Earth. Test batches of this isotope were produced in the United States as a secondary product of plutonium-239 processing for combat purposes during the cold war. But to continue space exploration, it’s going to take a lot more than that.

Oak Ridge laboratory was involved in the synthesis of plutonium in 2012, but the production of only a few grams of the substance was a very complex, time-consuming procedure that requires painstaking work. Now the researchers report that they were able to find a method, that allows to automate and significantly speed up these processes. For the synthesis of plutonium-238, neptunium and aluminum elements are used, which are compressed in tubes and irradiated in the reactor. Just the release of these granules made it difficult the whole process and required human intervention. The head of the study Bob Wem explains that in most atomic experiments man must run the process and monitor it carefully. Now, after years of testing and research, automation has worked.

Now Oak Ridge produces 50 grams of plutonium per year, but in the near future plans to establish production of 400 grams per year. According to supplied in NASA targets, over the next 2 years, the speed of production should grow to one and a half pounds, otherwise the long-range missions into space should be forgetten. In addition, NASA considers options for creating more effective advanced multi-purpose RTGs. But to make a really high-quality step into the future, you need to come up with something new, because one day all this will be still not enough for space exploration. Scientists believe that the only true scenario is nuclear fission. In particular, such a reactor called Kilopower was tested last year. This device is able to generate energy during long space missions, and even with the participation of people. The power of the equipment is 4 kW, but the scientists plan to accelerate it to 10 kW. In addition, scientists do not exclude other, more fantastic options of energy generation. In particular, some suggest detonating atomic bombs in a pulsed nuclear engine in the tail of a spacecraft. Others, like Princeton Satellite Systems, want to produce energy through fusion.