STATES CHRONICLE – Finally managing to produce 50 grams of the rare substance that powers spacecraft items, scientists welcome 30 years lost plutonium-238.
The substance was being produced in the past in South Carolina at the Savannah River Plant but the production ceased in the late 1980s. Now, after 30 years in which this U.S. capability remained dormant, a team of scientists from the laboratory of Energy’s Oak Ridge have finally produced a sample of plutonium-238.
Before starting a mass production researchers will analyze the sample and see if any adjustments need to be made to the sample or to the production models. Once they automate the process and scale it up they will manage to provide the whole country with the capability of producing radioisotope power systems. These power systems are just like the ones NASA uses for space explorations.
The ‘revival’ of the substance was made possible through NASA funds. The space agency began funding the project two years ago, investing about $15 million a year to help make plutonium-238.
Here are some things you may want to know about plutonium-238. The researchers are using neptunium-237 which they mix with aluminum and then press it into some high-density pellets. After that, using an isotope reactor, they irradiate the pellets and create neptunium-238 which decays and becomes plutonium-238 very quickly.
But the process doesn’t end here. A chemical process is used to separate the plutonium from whatever neptunium is left. The neptunium will be recycled into a new plutonium-238 production. After the substance is pure it is converted into an oxide and shipped to and stored at the Los Alamos Laboratory until it’s needed for a mission.
So far, only 77 pounds of plutonium-238 have been produced and they are especially meant for NASA missions. However, only half of the supply meets the power requirements and the amount of plutonium-238 is only enough for powering two or three missions in the next decade.
Until then, however, ORNL will produce enough material to extend the present supply and power more than three space missions. They are estimating that about 1.5 kg will be produced per year.
All in all, by bringing back the plutonium-238 scientists have managed to ensure the next decade of space exploration will be even more successful than this one.
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