European Space Agency (ESA) ministers recently approved funding for a special project aimed at making batteries powered by nuclear waste for use in space exploration. If successful, the new technology will allow operations to be carried out in areas where access to solar energy is reduced or absent, such as on the far side of the moon.
Researchers working with the ESA believe they can use americium, a radioactive element derived from the decay of plutonium, to generate enough heat to heat the device and generate electricity to power the device. quantity for features. This will be the first time americium has been used in this way, but the innovation comes at a time of necessity for the European space program.
Current batteries rely on plutonium-238, an expensive and difficult element to manufacture. The United States and Russia are home to most of the world’s supply, and unfortunately, NASA has barely had enough to fuel its own ambitions. At this point, the only option is for the ESA to find an alternative.
To achieve this goal, ESA has dedicated 29 million euros to the development of americium batteries. According to the researchers, the element is easier and cheaper to produce. Unfortunately, it also produces less potential energy than plutonium-238, but the scientists believe the trade-off would be in favor of the ESA. Plutonium-238 is produced by a two-step process that involves irradiating neptunium-237 in a special reactor. Developing americium is much cheaper because it is derived from the plutonium used in the types of nuclear reactors used in civil power plants. Because of its relative abundance, it costs about a fifth of the price to produce an individual watt of electricity using americium compared with plutonium-238.
The ESA rockets are now expected to carry americium battery technology “by the end of the decade”. Over the next three years, however, ESA’s experimental team will develop special prototypes for use in space-like environments here on Earth.
As for the European space program, it all boils down to the freedom to conduct operations without depending on American or Russian fuel. As ESA Advisory Council Chairwoman Athena Coustenis recently told Nature: “The current political situation shows that you can’t always rely on partners.” This, of course, alludes to the agency’s previous reliance on Russian plutonium. Despite the green light of ESA and current research on americium, this project shows for the first time that it will be used as a power source in this type of battery. There are still some problems to work out, scientists say, before we use Europe’s stockpile of americium-filled nuclear waste to illuminate the far side of the moon and other dark regions of the planet. outer space.
Once perfected, the new battery technology will allow astronauts and ESA scientists to carry out single missions, i.e. space research, without the necessary help from research partners. outside Europe such as the United States or Russia. It will also save the agency money in the long run, money that can potentially be reinvested in the space program.
The ESA engineers still have to worry about maintaining the integrity of the radioactive materials and the safety of the crew who will be handling the batteries and operating the equipment they are used in, which should be a win-win situation for Europeans interested in the great beyond.
They can’t just reuse the old containers because producing the necessary energy requires more americium than plutonium. According to Nature, the ESA is creating specialized containers that can emit the heat produced by americium but not any of its radioactivity to achieve this. Although there are no guarantees in science, the research to date suggests that this is good news for Europe’s plans to align its own space program with NASA’s.
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