Oak Ridge National Laboratory Researchers make 50 grams of Plutonium: DOE

Oak Ridge National Laboratory Researchers make 50 grams of Plutonium: DOE

For deep-space exploration, Plutonium-238 is the apt fuel choice. However, for about 30 years, its production in the United States was nil. Everything changed on Tuesday. The Department of Energy (DOE) made an announcement that researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. have made 50 grams of the stuff.

The amount of stuff is not much, but something is better than nothing as it is the first time when the substance has been made in the nation since the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina halted its production in the late 1980s.

Plutonium-238 should not be confused with its weapons-grade variant, Pu-239. Plutonium-238 gives power to the spacecraft by heat production via radioactive decay. The method has been used in powering past missions, including the Voyager spacecraft and, the Viking missions on Mars, and the most recent ones are the Curiosity Mars Rover and New Horizons spacecraft.

In a DOE news release, John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said this major achievement by their DOE teammates has indicated a new renaissance in our solar system’s exploration.

He said, “Radioisotope power systems are a key tool to power the next generation of planetary orbiters, landers and rovers in our quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe”.

Presently, the US space agency NASA has access to 35 kilograms, nearly 77 pounds, of Pu-238 for powering space exploration missions. The stuff is only sufficient to power only two or three proposed missions, and could last into the middle 2020s.

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