Generating electricity from Americum
Scientists in the UK have generated electricity from a rare chemical element derived from nuclear waste.
A team of scientists led by the National Nuclear Laboratory, working with Leicester University, extracted highly radioactive americium from some of the UK’s plutonium stockpile, and used the heat it generated to create enough electric current to power a lightbulb.
The researchers believe their achievement – carried out in a shielded area in NNL’s Central Laboratory in Sellafield, Cumbria – to be a world first.
They now hope americium could be used in space missions, supplying electricity for sensors and transmitters on exploratory vehicles on distant, cold, dark planets where other power sources, like solar panels, don’t work. This would enable them to carry on sending images and data to Earth.
Science minister Chris Skidmore said: “This remarkable breakthrough is another brilliant testament to our world-leading scientific and university communities, and their commitment to keeping the UK at the frontier of developments in space technology and research into energy requirements in difficult environments.”
The researchers have been working towards this for several years, supported by funding from the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency and with the assistance of Leicestershire company European Thermodynamics.
Tim Tinsley, account director at the NNL, said: “Seeing this lightbulb lit is the culmination of a huge amount of specialist technical work. It is great to think that americium can be used in this way, recycling something that is a waste from one industry into a significant asset in another.”
From light bulbs to spacecraft
Getting from powering a lightbulb to powering space probes will take several more years of research and development, but the ESA says it wants to use the technology to power a lunar mission late next decade.
Adrian Bull, the NNL’s director of external relations, explained: “Some current probes use an isotope of plutonium for this – but that’s in increasingly short supply.” Americium-241 also has a much longer half-life – 420 years, compared to 80 years for plutonium-238 – so is more suitable for long missions.
Americium – atomic number 95 – doesn’t occur naturally on Earth, and was discovered by American scientists in a lab in 1944. It is produced by the radioactive decay of plutonium, which itself is almost entirely produced in nuclear reactors, and is actually used in tiny quantities in smoke detectors.
Its extraction isn’t just useful in itself, but leaves the plutonium in better condition for reuse as nuclear fuel – which is fortunate as the UK currently has 112 tonnes of civil plutonium stockpiled for a nuclear reactor programme that never happened. “This route of using americium takes something that’s generally regarded as a problem and turns it into an asset,” Bull added.
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