Space Fuel: Oak Ridge National Laboratory to Produce Plutonium-238

Fanny Littmarck | July 4, 2012
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The end of July marks the beginning of a $20 million R&D project led by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to produce and process plutonium-238. The U.S. space program will be using the Pu-238 that is to be produced by ORNL as fuel for future deep-space missions.

Pu-238, Ingredient in Space Fuel

In recent times, the United States has purchased Pu-238 from Russia in order to keep safe levels of space fuel on hand. Now even Russia’s supply is dwindling. As per this article, Pu-238 supplies are at such low levels that NASA may only continue with their deep-space missions through the year 2022. With no known substitutes, NASA’s only option is to produce the isotope domestically again. This is where ORNL comes in.

How Oak Ridge National Lab will Produce Plutonium-238

According to Frank Munger of the knoxnews.com blog, the first step in the project is to develop neptunium-237 that will then be added to a High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR). The HFIR will produce Pu-238, which the ORNL Radiochemical Engineering Development Center (REDC) will later process. By processing this radioactive material in hot cells and separating the Pu-238 from the neptunium, the ORNL researchers will be presented with purified plutonium isotopes. The goal set by the U.S. Department of Energy is to produce 1.5 to 2 kilograms of the isotope each year.

COMSOL Multiphysics is a key player in this plutonium-238 project, and Dr. James Freels, and co-authors Dr. Prashant K. Jain and Randy W. Hobbs of ORNL are submitting a paper on the topic for the COMSOL Conference 2012 Boston. We are looking forward to finding out more about this very important space fuel project.

COMSOL Multiphysics Bare-Pellet Capsule Design for Testing Plutonium-238 at ORNL
COMSOL-Produced Maximum Temperature Cut Plane of the Bare-Pellet
Capsule Design for Testing Pu-238 Production at ORNL

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