European Space Agency (ESA) ministers recently approved funding for a special project to build nuclear waste-based batteries for use in space exploration. If successful, the new technology could allow operations to be conducted in areas where access to solar energy is poor or absent, such as on the dark side of the moon.
Researchers working with the ESA believe they can use americium, a radioactive element derived from plutonium decay, to generate enough heat to both heat equipment and generate electricity to power functionality. This would be the first time americium has been used in this way, but the innovation comes at a necessary time for the European space program.
Current batteries rely on plutonium-238, an element that is challenging and expensive to produce. The US and Russia are home to the lion’s share of the world’s reserves, and unfortunately NASA barely has enough to fulfill its own ambitions. The only option at the moment is for the ESA to find an alternative.
To this end, the ESA has earmarked 29 million euros for the development of an americium battery. According to researchers, the element is both easier and cheaper to produce. Unfortunately, it also yields less potential energy than plutonium-238, but scientists believe the tradeoffs will work out in favor of the ESA.
Plutonium-238 is made through a two-stage process that involves irradiating neptunium-237 in a special reactor. It is much cheaper to develop americium because it is derived from the plutonium used in the kind of nuclear reactors used in civilian power plants. Due to its relative abundance, it costs about a fifth of the price to produce an individual watt of power using americium versus plutonium-238.
What this all comes down to for the European space program is the freedom to conduct operations without relying on US or Russian fuel sources. As Athena Coustenis, Chair of the ESA Advisory Committee, recently said nature told, “The current political situation shows that you cannot always rely on partners.” This, of course, is a reference to the agency’s past reliance on Russian plutonium.
Despite the green light from the ESA and ongoing research into americium, this project represents the first time it has been used as a power source in this type of battery. Scientists expect there are still some kinks to be worked out before we use Europe’s stockpile of americium-laden nuclear waste to illuminate the dark side of the moon and other shadowy parts of space.
Current expectations are that ESA rockets will feature americium battery technology “by the end of the decade”. However, over the next three years, the ESA test team will develop special prototypes for use in space-like environments here on Earth.
Once perfected, the new battery technology should enable ESA astronauts and scientists to carry out solo missions, i.e. space studies, without the necessary help from non-European research partners such as the US or Russia. It should also save the agency some money in the long run, which could potentially be reinvested in the space program.
This should be a win-win situation for Europeans interested in the afterlife, but ESA engineers still have the problem of ensuring the integrity of the radioactive materials and the safety of the crew handling the batteries and the equipment they use. use to operate. used in.
They can’t just reuse the old containers because it takes more americium to produce the required energy than plutonium. To that end, according to naturethe ESA is developing specialized containers that can release the heat of americium, but none of its radioactivity.
There are no guarantees in science, but based on the previous research, this seems good news for Europe’s ambitions to align its own space program with NASA’s.