The Anonymous Widower

UK Space Agency And NNL Work On World’s First Space Battery Powered By British Fuel

The title of this post, is the same as that of this press release from the UK Government.

This is the sub-title.

The UK Space Agency and the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) are to collaborate on the world’s first space battery powered by Americium-241.

And these three paragraphs outline the project.

This work, commissioned and funded by the UK Space Agency from NNL, will be delivered in a new £19 million laboratory in Cumbria equipped with next-generation equipment and technology. It will deliver a sovereign supply of fuel for space batteries in the context of a global shortage, enabling the UK and its partners to pursue new space science and exploration missions.

Creating new highly-skilled jobs in the North West of England, it will drive innovation in radiochemistry and separations science and open a new market for the UK space sector.

Atomic space batteries, also known as Radioisotope Power Systems (RPSs), release heat as the radioactivity within them decays. The heat can be used directly to prevent spacecraft from freezing and it can be converted into electricity to power onboard systems. The batteries go on working for decades, without need for maintenance over the many years in which a spacecraft could be travelling.

These two paragraphs explain, why there is a need for a new type of atomic space batteries.

Considered ‘mission critical technologies’ by space agencies in the UK and around the world, all the Apollo missions had an atomic battery in tow, as has every rover that has gone to Mars. Until now, these have been powered by Plutonium-238, a radioisotope produced only in the US, where supply is limited, and Russia, so an alternative is urgently needed.

NNL, the UK’s national laboratory for nuclear fission, has been working on this endeavor since 2009, when its researchers first discovered that Americium-241, an alternative to Plutonium-238, is produced during the radioactive decay of used fuel from nuclear reactors and that it emits power for over 400 years.

With the supply plentiful – the new laboratory is being opened at NNL’s flagship Central Laboratory on the Sellafield site, home to the largest resource of Americium-241 available for extraction in the world – the new collaboration will turn a proven scientific concept into a fully-realised technology. It will be operational within the next four years and is expected to be first used on the European Space Agency’s Argonaut mission to the Moon and for future missions into deep space.

It would appear that Americium-241 has several advantages over Plutonium-238.

  • Plutonium-238 has supply problems
  • Who in their right mind, would buy a product like this from Russia or China?
  • The batteries have a life of 400 years.
  • There is plenty of suitable nuclear waste at Sellafield, from which Americium-241 can be extracted.

It looks like the first batteries could also be available in four years.

Aunt Margery

My late wife; C’s Aunt Margery was a lady, who needed a pacemaker. I seem to remember that after several of her pacemakers had run out of power and were replaced, and eventually she was fitted with a nuclear-powered pacemaker in the 1970s or 1980s.

This page on the Stanford University web site is entitled The History Of Nuclear Powered Pacemakers. It was written by Matthew DeGraw.

Many of these pacemakers in the 1960s and 1970s, were powered by Plutonium-238.

The last paragraph is entitled The Rise Of Lithium Battery Pacemakers And Fall Of Nuclear Pacemakers, where this is said.

Despite the often longer life-expectancies, nuclear pacemakers quickly became a part of the past when lithium batteries were developed. Not only did the technology improve, allowing for lighter, smaller, and programmable pacemakers, but doctors began to realize that this excessive longevity of nuclear pacemakers was excessive. Lithium pacemakers often last 10-15 years allowing for doctors to check in on their patients and replace either the batteries or the pacemakers themselves with new and improved technology as it is develops in those 10-15 year spans. While there are still several remaining patients with nuclear-powered pacemakers functioning in their bodies, it is likely that in the next few decades as these patients pass away, so will the once promising nuclear pacemakers.

Would the use of Americium-241 to power a nuclear pacemaker transform the economics of these devices?

I wonder, if there’s a cardiologist out there, who by chance reads this blog, who could answer my question!

 

December 9, 2022 - Posted by | Energy, Health, Transport/Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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