Robots perform process to produce plutonium for space exploration

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Deep space exploration, in which spacecraft travel to the far reaches of our solar system or beyond, requires a lot of power. For NASA, a valuable source of this energy is a radioactive material called plutonium-238. Providing a constant source of heat as it decays, plutonium-238 (note: not the type of plutonium used for nuclear weapons) has been used as a critical component in more than two dozen U.S. space missions over the past 50 years. . Converting its heat into electricity has helped power computers, scientific instruments, and a variety of other hardware on NASA missions, from the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars to the flyby of Pluto’s New Horizons spacecraft.

Unfortunately, we have not produced plutonium-238 on a regular basis for decades; something that poses a problem for the continuation of deep space mission plans that were to rely on dwindling US stocks. Maybe until now, that is.

At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, scientists have discovered a way to automate part of the process to create this alpha particle-producing radioisotope. This will help increase the annual production of this material, contributing to NASA’s goal of manufacturing 1.5 kilograms of this material each year by 2025.

Genevieve Martin and Jenny Woodbery / Oak Ridge National Laboratory, US Department of Energy

“Last year we showed NASA that we can make Pu-238 of the right purity for use in radioisotope power systems,” said Bob Wham, project manager for the initiative. , at Digital Trends. “However, we were limited in the amount of Pu-238 we could produce in a single year: the limiting factor is the number of targets we can build and irradiate in a year. Automating our target manufacturing increases what we can gain from [a] factor of four and puts us in a constant rate production mode.

The neptunium-aluminum oxide pellet is the basic building block involved in the radiation process that results in plutonium-238. The previous manufacturing process of these granules was done by manual hand pressing. This can now be achieved using automation in a robotic lab setup. In the process, the number of granules that it is possible to manufacture increases from 80 to 275 per week.

“We will do it [next] focus our attention on intensifying the chemical treatment effort in 2020, ”continued Wham. “We plan to recover around 220g of new plutonium oxide in 2019 and 660g in 2020. gy of plutonium oxide. We plan to be at this operating level by 2025. ”

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