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John O | July 2018

Pushing boundaries of space exploration with small-scale nuclear power systems

By Josh Perry, Editor


Researchers from the University of Leicester (U.K.) have announced the creation of prototype power generating systems, radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG) and radioisotope heater unites (RHU), which are intended to utilize waste heat from americium-241.


Leicester  team  (left  to  right):  (back)  Hugo  Williams,  Richard  Ambrosi,  Tony  Crawford,  Chris  Bicknell,  (front)  Emily  Jane  Watkinson,  Ramy  Mesalam,  Alessandra  Barco. (University of Leicester)


According to a report from the university, the research team built a 10-watt RTG and a 3-watt RHU that use electrical heating to simulate heat from americium.


“Designed to be fueled by americium-241, the modular RTG will be able to generate up to 50 W of electrical power,” the article explained. “This program builds on the successful development and testing of a smaller scale 4 W lab-based RTG prototype.” Researchers are working with Eurpean Thermodynamic Ltd. on the thermal management aspects of the project.


The article continued, “In addition, by working with Lockheed Martin UK, Johnson Matthey and National Nuclear Laboratory, Leicester have developed and tested a 3 W radioisotope heater unit prototype. This system is designed to keep spacecraft warm in challenging places.”


One of the researchers credited the development of new materials that operate at high temperatures in making this breakthrough possible. Also, researchers believe that thermoelectric conversion using small amounts of electrical power and heat sources could “open a range of space exploration scenarios.”


Read more about the development and hear from more of the researchers at https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/press-releases/2018/july/transforming-space-exploration.

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