When talking about plutonium, what usually comes to mind are bombs and radioactivity, but recently a group of scientists added something positive to that list, electricity.
As reported online by The Engineer, a group of scientists was able to extract americium from plutonium and use the heat generated to in turn produce an electrical current which was used to light up a small lightbulb.
The idea itself, of generating electricity from this synthetically produced plutonium element has been discussed for years in the scientific community. The general plan according to a CDC report was to 'turn nuclear warheads into power reactor fuel by making a mixed oxide fuel of uranium and plutonium'.' This fuel, called MOX, will contain two isotopes of americium, americium two-forty-one, and americium two-forty-three, and the plan is to use it to make electricity. Once used, the spent nuclear fuel is to be sent for disposal.' But, no one made any headway, except now. No one, except for the United Kingdom actually followed through.
The research was led by the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) in collaboration with Leicester University, the government's Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department through the UK Space Agency, and the European Thermodynamics (who developed the thermoelectric generator unit).
With permission from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, plutonium from the UK stockpile was used for the research and given its extremely high radioactivity, the research itself was conducted within a special containment area in NNL's Central Laboratory in Cumbria.
The development of this particular technology according to the researchers is a huge breakthrough, especially for space travel. This technology can be used as a power source for spacecraft that are tasked to go on deep space missions or for those going to challenging environments wherein the power source might be very limited, such as instances wherein solar panels are not feasible. Furthermore, the battery life for such as technology will be quite long, in their estimate at most 400 years, which makes longer space travel to farther destinations possible.
Tim Tinsley, NNL's account director for the work, said: "Seeing this lightbulb lit is the culmination of a huge amount of specialist technical work.."
"Leicester University's capability in the development of the radioisotope power systems was complimented by NNL's expertise in handling and processing americium in our... lab facilities. It is great to think that americium can be used in this way, recycling something that is waste from one industry into a significant asset in another."
"The unrivaled energy density of nuclear power sources enables a whole range of missions that would be otherwise impossible," added Keith Stephenson, ESA programme lead. "This successful collaboration between the nuclear and space sectors has created a brand-new capability for Europe and opens the door to a future of ambitious and exciting exploration of our solar system."