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Rare element could power distant space missions

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UK scientists at the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) have generated electricity from the element americium, in a process which could potentially power future centuries-long space missions.

Americium is a rare synthetic element first produced in 1944 as part of the Manhattan Project. It is typically produced in small quantities by bombarding uranium or plutonium in nuclear reactors, causing nuclear fission. It is heavy and highly radioactive.

A team of researchers from the NNL and the University of Leicester extracted americium from some of the UK’s plutonium stockpile. They were able to use the heat generated from the americium to light a small lightbulb, within a shielded area in the NNL’s Central Laboratory in Cumbria.

This marks the first time electricity has been generated from the rare element.

According to the researchers, this could be an opportunity to build new power systems that could power future space missions for up to 400 years. These systems would use the heat from small pellets of the radioisotope to power spacecraft in environments with no other power sources, such as in deep space, where solar panels no longer function. This would allow spacecraft to continue transmitting data back to Earth for far longer than has been possible to date.

“In order to push forwards the boundaries of space exploration, innovations in power generation, robotics, autonomous vehicles and advanced instrumentation are needed,” said Chris Bicknell, an engineer at the University of Leicester. “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 science minister Chris Skidmore welcomed the researchers’ work, which has been supported by the government.

“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,” Skidmore said. “It is on the foundations of such discoveries that we can create the highly skilled jobs of the future.”

In October 2018, the European Space Agency launched its first spacecraft to Mercury, equipped with electrical ion thrusters which had never previously been used in space missions. The vehicle is powered through space with four engines which work by ionising inert xenon gas. The resultant plasma is fired from thrusters at almost 150,000km/h.

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