Researchers in the United Kingdom have extracted americium from a plutonium stockpile and used the heat generated from this radioactive element to generate enough electric current to light up a small lightbulb. The breakthrough means potential use of americium in radioisotope power systems for missions which would use the heat from americium pellets to power spacecraft heading into deep space or to challenging environments on planet surfaces where other power sources, such as solar panels, no longer function.
“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,” said Dr. Tim Tinsley, a scientist with the National Nuclear Laboratory.
Americium is a silvery-white radioactive chemical element with the symbol Am and atomic number 95.
This element was first produced in 1944 by the group of Glenn T. Seaborg from Berkeley, California, at the Metallurgical Laboratory of the University of Chicago, a part of the Manhattan Project.
Americium is a transuranic member of the actinide series, in the periodic table located under the lanthanide element europium, and thus by analogy was named after the Americas.
It occurs naturally in uranium minerals, but only in trace amounts. The main source of the element is the neutron bombardment of plutonium in nuclear reactors — one ton of spent nuclear fuel contains about 100 g of americium.
The element is commonly used in smoke alarms, but has few other uses.
“This remarkable breakthrough sounds like something from a science fiction film but it is another brilliant testament to our world leading scientific and university communities and their commitment to keeping the UK at the very frontier of developments in space technology and research for energy requirements in difficult environments,” said Chris Skidmore, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation and Interim Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth.
“In order to push forward the boundaries of space exploration, innovations in power generation, robotics, autonomous vehicles and advanced instrumentation are needed,” said University of Leicester’s Professor Richard Ambrosi.
“Radioisotope power sources are an important technology for future European space exploration missions as their use would result in more capable spacecraft, and probes that can access distant, cold, dark and inhospitable environments. This is an important step in achieving these goals.”
“The unrivalled energy density of nuclear power sources enables a whole range of missions that would be otherwise impossible,” said Dr. Keith Stephenson, from ESA.
“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.”