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Unformatted text preview: CHAPTER 3 RADIOISOTOPES POWER PRODUCTION
© M. Ragheb
2/10/2010 3.1 INTRODUCTION
Compact devices using radioisotopes for terrestrial and space power applications have been in
use since 1956. They were initially developed under the general designation of Systems for Nuclear
Auxiliary Power or SNAP. The SNAP-3 device was first demonstrated in 1959, it was the size of a
grape fruit, weighted 4 lbs, had a power of 2.5 Watts, and was capable of delivering 11.60 Kilowatthours of electrical energy over a 280 days period. This would have been the equivalent energy
produced by Nickel-Cadmium batteries weighing about 700 lbs. It used as an energy source the
Polonium210 isotope. 3.2 SPACE APPLICATIONS
In space applications, isotopic power units offer advantages over solar cells, fuel cells and
batteries because of the following circumstances:
1. When the satellite orbits pass through radiation belts such as the Van-Allen belts around the
Earth that could destroy the solar cells.
2. Operations on the Moon or Mars where long periods of darkness require heavy batteries to
supply power when solar cells would not have access to sun light.
3. Space missions in opaque atmospheres such as Venus, where solar cells would be useless
because of lack of light.
4. At distances far from the Sun, for long duration missions where fuel cells, batteries and solar
arrays would be too large and heavy.
5. Heating the electronics and storage batteries in the deep cold of space at minus 245 degrees
Fahrenheit is a necessity. 3.3 ISOTOPES FOR POWER GENERATION
A radioisotope power generator must meet stringent safety criteria. Under no circumstance
should it subject people to undue radiation exposure. It must also be reliable, operating for long
periods of time without failure. Weight and cost are also important performance criteria. For
terrestrial applications, weight can be large at the expense of cost. For space applications weight may
have to be reduced at the expense of cost. The design of a radioisotope power generator becomes a
typical engineering task of optimizing different performance criteria.
The fuel capsule, as shown in Figs. 1-2, must be constructed as a rupture proof container filled
with an isotope with a large volumetric power density. The initial activity of the isotope in
Becquerels or transformations per second is given by:
A0 = λN 0 [Bq] (1) where λ = ln 2/T1/2, is the decay constant of the isotope in sec-1,
T1/2 is its half-life in seconds,
No is the initial atoms present at time t = 0. Fig. 1: Radioisotope Heater Unit (RHU) weighs only 40 grams and is 3.2 cm long and 2.6 cm in
diameter. NASA photograph. Fig. 2: Internals of a Radioisotope Heater Unit (RHU) Fig. 3: Plutonium238 oxide sphere. Fig. 4: Plutonium238 disc showing internal heat generation.
The specific activity of the isotopes in Becquerels per grams is given by:
A0 = λ N0
g [Bq/gm] (2) If the energy release per disintegration is E in MeV, the specific power of the isotope is given by:
P' = Since: EλN 0
g (3) N0 = gAv
M (4) where: Av is Avogadro’s number = 0.6x1024 [nuclei/mole],
M is the atomic weight in amus.
One can write for the specific power of the isotope:
P' = EλAv
M (5) where the weight of the isotope (g) cancels out.
We can express the specific power in watts per gram using the conversion factor:
1 [MeV/sec] = 1.6x10-13 [Watts]
P ' = 1.6 x10−13 Eλ Av
M (6) These are thermal Watts of power generated as heat. If conversion of thermal energy to
electricity is attempted, then the specific electrical power output in electrical Watts per gram
= η= 1.6 x10−13
th P ηth Eλ Av
M [Watts(e)/gm] (7) where: ηth is the overall conversion efficiency.
PRODUCTION OF Pu238
The isotope Np237 is produced in reactor fuel from U238 through the (n, 2n) reaction:
0 n1 + 92U 238 → 2 0 n1 + 92U 237 237
→ −1 e0 + 93 Np 237
92 U (8) It can be separated from reactor fuel and further irradiated in a neutron flux to produce Pu238 from the
0 n1 + 93 Np 237 → 93 93 Np 238 + γ Np 238 → −1 e0 + 94 Pu 238 (9) EXAMPLE
For the alpha emitter Pu238, the half life is 87.74 years, and the energy per disintegration is
5.544 MeV, yielding:
P ' = 1.6 x10−13 Eλ Av
M = 1.6 x10−13 x5.544
= 0.56 [ 0.6931
87.74 x 365 x 24 x 60 x 60 238.0495 Watts(th )
For Ni63; a pure beta emitter, the half life is 100.1 years, and the energy per disintegration is
0.067 MeV, yielding:
P ' = 1.6 x10−13 Eλ Av
100.1x 365 x 24 x 60 x 60 62.92967
= 0.0224 [
= 1.6 x10−13 x 0.067 Table 1 shows the specific power of different isotopes used in power applications. In a design
situation, the mass of a given isotope needed to produce a certain amount of power P in Watts(th),
can be estimated from:
P' (10) The radioisotope fuel must be inexpensive and easily shielded against gamma radiation that is
associated with some beta and alpha emissions. The fuel capsule must be rugged enough to withstand
impact against rock at high velocity in case of a rocket launch failure, yet it must melt easily if the
generator reenters the Earth’s atmosphere. A capsule designed for the containment of the isotope
is shown in Fig. 1. It weighs 40 grams, is 3.2 cms long and 2.6 cms in diameter, producing a
power of 1 Watt(th). Its internal design is shown in Fig. 2. 3.4 SELECTION CRITERIA FOR ISOTOPES
There are at least 1,300 radioactive isotopes both natural and man-made available. Many of
them are fission products from the fission of fissile fuel in fission reactors, and others can be
manufactured in particle accelerators. If one sets a limit on the half lives: 100 days < T1/2 < 100 years,
the number of choices is reduced to only 100 of them. If one further sets a criterion on the specific
P’ > 0.1 [Watt(th)/gm],
and eliminate those with powerful gamma rays emissions, only about 30 isotopes are left. Even
though others can be used, attention has been concentrated on 8 isotopes from the potential list of 15
shown in Table 1, which have desirable characteristics and are cheap to produce.
Table 1: Properties of isotopes useful for isotopic power generation.
Isotope Main modes of radiation Half life Specific Power Melting point
β , no γ 3
1 Tritium - 280.00 a - 14.28 d - 25.30 d - 32 87.2 d β , no γ Silicon 14 32
15 β , no γ 33 β , no γ Phosphorous
35 β , no γ Sulfur 16 - 100.10 a 0.0224 10.72 a 0.623 - 29.00 a 0.93 770.0 33.1 2,310.0 β,γ Cobalt - 63 β , no γ Nickel - 85
36 17.7 β,γ 60 28 5.27 a β,γ 21
27 83.8 d - 46 Scandium Krypton
90 β , no γ Strontium 38
38 39 29.00 a - 90 - β,γ 90 Strontium - Yttrium 64.00 h - 1.008 a 1,480.0 β,γ (parent-daughter)
144 Cerium β , no γ
- 2.062 a - 30.17 a 0.42 28.0 - 284.4 d 25.60 800.0 β,γ
β,γ - 147
61 - 160 β,γ
β , few γ 69 - 198
79 - - Α, few γ 210 Polonium
238 94 Plutonium 96 254.0 87.74 a 0.56 640.0 β , α, γ 0.11 162.80 d 120.00 950.0 α, γ,SF Curium 432.00 a α, γ,SF 242 Curium 14.70 a α, γ, SF Americium
244 96 141.00 - 241 Plutonium
241 95 136.38 d α, γ,SF 210 Bismuth 94 5.01 d β , no γ 81 84 3.77 a β , α, γ 204 Thallium 83 2,375.0 2.696 d β,γ Gold 1,300.0 13.2 129 d - 170 Thulium 0.33 72.4 d Terbium 65 2.6234 a β , few γ Promethium 640.0 18.11 a 2.84 950.0 Table 2: Required Pb shielding for radioisotopic sources of 1 kWth power leading to an
effective (dose equivalent) of 10 mrem/hr at 1 meter.
emission T 1/2 [yr] Spontaneous
3 [g/cm ] [ F] Specific
[Wth/gm] [yr] Pu 238 α O 2 87.7 Activity
[in] [Ci/Wth] 10 5x10 4,352 10.0 0.39 30 0.1 3,632 10.47 0.097 30 0.7 α 432.0 Cm244 O α 2x10 18.1 3,956 9.0 2.27 29 2.01 Cs137Cl β - 30.0 1.4x10
- 1,193 3.2 0.12 207 4.6 - 28.0 - 3,704 4.6 0.22 148 6.0 5.24 - 2,723 8.8 1.74 65 9.5 241 Am O 2 2 2 Sr90TiO 2 Metallic
Table 3: Commercial forms of the isotopes. Isotope Form Percent isotope in metallic element 60 Metal 10.0 Co
90 SrTiO 55.0 106 Metal 3.3 137 CsCl 35.0 144 Ce O 4.5 Sr 3 Ru
Ce 2 147 Pm 3 Pm O
2 170 3 95.0 Tm O 10.0 210 Metal 95.0 238 PuO 80.0 Tm 2 Po
Pu 3 2 242 Cm
244 Cm Cm O 0.45 Cm O 18.1 2
3 Strontium90, as well as tritium are pure beta emitters emitting no gamma rays, eliminating the
need to shield against them. However, as the beta particles are stopped in the surrounding material,
secondary radiation in the form of bremstrahlung radiation is emitted. This requires shielding. A
lead casing would have to be about 4 inches thick, depleted uranium, 3 inches thick, and cast iron 8
The negative beta emitters can be recovered abundantly from fission fuel reprocessing plants.
The alpha emitters, with weak gammas, are easier to shield. They are more costly than the beta
emitters, but they offer the advantage of weight reduction with good specific power. This makes
them particularly useful in space applications. 3.5 FUEL FORMS
A chemical form that would contain the radioisotope under all conceivable circumstances is a
desired safety feature. In the case of the use of Strontium90, which has a half life of 28 years, and that
is available at the megacuries level in the waste from uranium reprocessing, one must contain it
effectively before being able to use it, since it is bone seeker, by the fact that it lies under calcium in
the periodic table of the elements, and hence possesses chemical properties similar to calcium.
Strontium titanate: SrTiO2 has been identified as a suitable fuel form. Its melting point is
1910 0C, which is high enough to keep the fuel in the solid state in most fire situations. It is also not
very soluble in fresh or salt water, another property that would isolate it from living organisms in the
unlikely case of its release to the environment. It is also resistant to shock and physically strong.
Solvent extraction is used to separate the two isotopes Sr90 and Sr89 from the fission products
wastes. Since Sr89 has only a half life of 51 days, aging the mixture would lead to the decay of Sr89,
leaving a relatively pure Sr90 sample in a short time period. The solvent extraction process produces strontium carbonate: SrCO3, which is later converted
into strontium titanate. It is then made into small cylindrical pellets, which are loaded into fuel
capsules. 3.6 THERMOELECTRIC CONVERSION Fig. 5: Operation of a Thermoelectric Generator.
Thomas Johann Seebeck, a German scientist, discovered thermoelectricity. He observed that
an electrical voltage is produced when two dissimilar metals are joined in a closed circuit and the two
junctions are kept at different temperatures. Such junctions are called thermoelectric couples, or in
In a temperature measuring or sensing thermocouple two ordinary metals or alloys are used.
For power production, it was discovered that some semiconductors doped by the addition of
impurities to produce a deficiency or an excess of electrons provide a greater efficiency. A large
number of semiconductor compounds exhibit the thermoelectric effect. The power output of a
thermoelectric material is a function of its operating temperature.
In radioisotope generators, a thermoelectric couple is composed of a positive type element and
one negative type element designated as p-n junctions as shown in Fig. 5. In positive (p) elements the
flow of electrons is toward the hot junction. In negative (n) elements it is away from the hot junction.
A photograph of a thermoelectric generator used in space applications with its silicon-germanium
junctions is shown if Fig. 6. Fig. 6: Photograph of a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG). Source: NASA.
Energy losses can occur if the thermal conductivity of the elements is too high. Heat entering
the hot end would escape without much conversion to electricity. Joule heating or I2R losses, where I
is the current and R is the resistance, is another source of loss of heat energy. A thermoelectric rating
or figure of merit Z can be written for a thermoelectric generator as:
Rk (11) S is the Seebeck coefficient, a thermoelectric property of the material that is equal to
the voltage produced for each degree of temperature difference,
R is the electrical resistivity of the thermoelectric material,
k is the thermal conductivity of the thermoelectric material. The higher this figure of merit Z the better the thermoelectric material. Thus a good thermoelectric
material is one with high S but low k and R. Ordinary metals like copper conduct heat too well. Instead, semiconductors like bismuth
telluride and germanium silicide make good thermoelectric elements. 3.7 THERMIONIC CONVERTERS
In thermionic direct energy conversion, an electric current is obtained by collecting the
electrons emitted by a hot surface. The hot surface would be a high work function emitter. Fig. 7: Principle of operation of a flat thermionic generator.
The electrons are collected at a low work function collector. The thin gap of about 0.02 cm
between the emitter and the collector is filled with a metallic vapor plasma such a cesium.
Since the hot temperature must be high to boil off the electrons from the emitter, the Carnot
cycle efficiency is high. However this is neutralized because that same high temperature causes
losses around the converters. Heat is also lost across the narrow gap by thermal radiation. If the
electrons boiled off from the emitter strike the collector with too high an energy, their kinetic energy
is turned into heat. Reducing the heat losses around the energy converters becomes paramount for a
The perfect generator would be spherical in geometry, where all heat would have to flow
through the converter section. The more practical cylindrical shapes have to be insulated towards the
ends. To force the heat through the thermionic converters the curved sides are surrounded with thin
metal sheets separated by a vacuum. The practical thermionic generator resembles a multi-layered
vacuum bottle operating between a temperature of 1,700 oC at the emitter and 700 oC at the collector.
A thermionic generator would have an overall efficiency between 15 and 20 percent. Fig. 8: Cylindrical type of thermionic generator. Fig. 9: Dynamic converter SNAP 2 uses a high speed turbine, mercury coolant, an electric
generator and pumps to produce 3,000 Watts of power from radioisotopes.
The boiled off electrons form a cloud of negative charges that repel subsequently emitted
electrons. This space charge effect in a thermionic generator must be circumvented by filling the gap
between the plates with a gas containing positively charged particles such as cesium. These positive
ions mix with the electrons and neutralize their charge. The mixture of positive and negative charges
constitutes a plasma. The plasma makes the gas a good conductor. The emitted electrons can move
easily across the plasma and they condense on the cooler surface. 3.8 DYNAMIC ENERGY CONVERSION This is the most familiar process of using a working fluid such as steam, to produce
mechanical energy to drive a turbine, which in turn drives an electric generator as shown in Fig. 9.
When radioisotopes are used, alternate working media could be adopted such as mercury,
potassium, sodium and lithium liquid metals, or organic liquids. Closed loop gas systems using
helium and argon could also be used. The dynamic converter Snap 2 used a high speed turbine, an
electric generator and pumps to produce 3,000 Watts of power from radioisotopes with the NaK
eutectic that is liquid at room temperature. 3.9 NUCLEAR BATTERY, BETA CELL
The nuclear battery concept uses the emission of charged particles from a surface coated by a
radioisotope to directly produce electrical energy. The energy is minute compared with that from
conventional batteries but can be used in special applications requiring small amounts of electrical
current. Their application as current sources in nanotechnology to provide power to Micro Electro
Mechanical Systems (MEMS) deserves exploration.
Moseley’s generator was a direct charging device consisting of a spherical glass globe
silvered on the inside, with a radium isotope emitter installed on the tip of a wire in the center. The
charged particles from the radium moved to the inside silvered surface of the sphere.
The current charged the sphere as a capacitor. The spacing could be either a vacuum or a
dielectric. Negative beta particles, positive alpha particles positrons or fission fragments could be
used. Extremely low currents and high voltages result by the direct charging process. The voltages
can be reduced using transformer and oscillator devices followed by rectifiers to transform the
alternating current to a direct current as needed.
A very little known fact is that beta particles ejected from an insulated radioactive source
leave it with a positive charge. This is the principle of operation of the Henry Moseley generator that
dates back to 1913.
VOLTAGE PRODUCTION BATTERIES, BETA VOLTAICS
The Moseley generator could be 1 inch in height and consist of a radioisotope such as Sr90
enclosed in a polystyrene capsule within an aluminum collector. A Monel wire transmits the positive
charge to an anode. The system would be surrounded by a copper cylinder around a lead radiation
shield to which the cathode is connected.
The maximum voltage can reach up to 7 kilovolts and is about 1 percent efficient. For 10
milli curies of Sr90, a current of 40 μμA at zero voltage is produced.
Another design consists of a rod in the center that is coated with an electron-emitting isotope
such as tritium. The electrons cross the gap between two concentric cylinders and are collected on a
metallic sleeve and directed to the load. Fig.10: The nuclear battery uses the emission of charged particles from a surface coated by a
Space charge effects are not noticeable since the energy of the electrons far exceeds those that
are emitted by thermionic devices.
Voltage production nuclear batteries are simple and rugged but can generate only
microamperes of current at a high voltage of 10 to 100 kVolts. These high voltages can be used as
particle accelerators but are unsuitable for consumer devices requiring lower voltages. We proposed
an inverse Marx Generator as a voltage step down device.
The beta particles can be made to pass through a silicon diode generating power in a way
similar to that used in photovoltaics cells.
ELECTROMECHANICAL PIEZOELECTRIC GENERATOR
A charge buildup is created between two adjacent plates with one coated with a radioisotope,
and the other bendable. The bendable plate touches the other plate as a result of the electrostatic
charge buildup and discharges it returning back to its original position and creating a vibration
mechanical motion. The use of a piezoelectric material or an electrical linear generator can create
power in the range of milliwatts at a 35 Hz frequency.
A beta emitter such as Tc99m can be used to excite an excimer mixture of argon and xenon in a
composite carbon fiber pressure vessel with an inner mirrored surface generating light that can then
transformed into electricity using a photocell. An intermittent ultrasonic source would stir a fine
Tc99m powder from which the beta particles would escape illuminating the photocell that has a
bandgap tuned to the used excimer. CURRENT PRODUCING BATTERIES
Instead of directly collecting the electrons, one can take advantage of the secondary ions
multiplication principle. The high energy electrons could be used to bombard a pea sized silicon P-N
junction or a dielectric. The P-N junction in turn can release 200,000 slow moving electrons for each
high energy electron striking it.
In this case a low magnitude voltage is produced at about 10 mV; strong enough to cause an
audible signal in a telephone receiver and can definitely be used in nanotechnology in MEMS
A battery using the S90 isotope would be the size of a thimble and can have an operational life
of more than 20 years. Other pure beta emitter isotopes such as tritium can be used avoiding the need
for shielding against gamma radiation, with just shielding against the lower energy bremstrahlung
radiation in the x rays region of the electromagnetic spectrum. The use of Thallium204 would allow a
recharging of the nuclear battery by reirradiating it in a nuclear reactor.
The use of low energy pure beta emitter isotopes would eliminate the need to shield aginst
gamma radiation. Low energy beta particles would also generate low energy bremstrahlung x rays
that is easy to shield against. This suggests isotopes such as T3, Ni63, Sr90, Tc99m, and Pm147. Pu238,
Curium242, and Curium244 are other possibilities. 3.10 ALKALI METAL THERMAL TO ELECTRIC CONVERTER, AMTEC
This is an electromechanical device using the β-alumina electrolyte used in the sodium sulfur
type of battery. It is a sodium concentration cell using the ceramic polycrystalline β -alumina solid
electrolyte as a separation between a high pressure Na vapor region at 900-1300 oK and a lower
pressure liquid sodium region at 400-700 oK. 3.11 SPACE PROBES HEAT AND ELECTRICAL POWER SUPPLIES
On a typical interplanenary spacecraft, between 300 Watts and 2,500 Watts(e) of electricity
are required to power all the computers, radio transmitters, receivers, motors, valves, data storage
devices, instruments and a multitude of sensors. For instance the Cassini spacecraft shown in Fig. 11
sent to Saturn, uses 1 kW of power. This power generation must be supplied reliably over a period of
years or decades. Battery power is an option only on short missions such as the Huygens atmospheric
entry probes. Even when batteries are used, solar photovoltaic and radioisotopes thermo electric
generators must be used to charge the batteries before their deployment. The batteries and the
electronic equipment must also be kept from freezing in the cold of space, so that radio isotopic
heating units, shown in Fig. 12, are also needed for heating the batteries and equipment. Fig. 11: The Cassini Space craft showing its three thermoelectric radioisotope generators.
Radioisotope heating units (RHUs) normally use the isotope Pu238 these systems are highly
reliable since they do not use moving parts. They are very compact and lightweight, resist radiation
damage and the heat produced is independent of the distance from the sun as opposed to solar heating
Photovoltaic materials are capable of converting solar energy directly into electricity at an
efficiency reaching 29 percent. Crystalline silicon and gallium arsenide are typical choices for deep
space applications. At a distance of one Astronautical Unit (AU), corresponding to the distance
between the Earth and the sun, a 6 cm diameter silicon cell can produce a current of about 1 ampere
at a voltage of 0.25 volt. Fig. 12: General purpose Heat Source (GPHS) Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG). Fig. 13: The Ulysses solar probe with a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG). Solar cells are manufactured from crystalline ingots that are grown then sliced into wafer thin
circles with metallic conductors deposited as a grid facing the sun, and a flat sheet on the other side.
Solar panels or solar arrays are constructed of the cells trimmed into appropriate shapes and attached
to a substrate, then normally enclosed in protective glass covers. The cells are connected in series
and parallel combinations to reach the total desired voltage. The substrate and cement must conduct
heat since the cells absorb solar energy and can reach high temperatures, yet they are more efficient
when they operate at low temperatures. Fig. 14: A Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) being fitted to the Ulysses solar
Even when photovoltaics are feasible, missions close to the sun such as the Ulysses solar
probe shown in Fig. 13 used thermoelectric generators to avoid the interference effects of strong
magnetic fields and intense fluxes of radiation close to the sun. Ulysses explored the northern portion
of the sun and mapped it. It also explored the magnetic fields associated with the sun.
Beyond the orbit of Mars, the weaker intensity of solar radiation would require solar panels
larger in size and weight than is practicable, because of the increased and more costly launch mass.
In addition if the panels become excessively large, it becomes difficult to support, deploy and
articulate them. One of the panel designed for the Spacelab satellite failed to deploy successfully.
Prolonged exposure to sunlight causes the photovoltaics performance to degrade at a rate of 1
to 2 percent per year. They degrade much faster if they are exposed to particle radiation from solar
flares or from radiation belts.
When solar panels cannot be used efficiently, radio-isotopic power sources become the best
available alternative. The Thermoelectric unicouple is a semiconductor type device with P and N
type material in the legs. Heat from the decay of a radioactive isotope is applied at the hot junction.
Cooling through radiation in space produces an electrical potential difference between the materials,
according to the Seebeck Effect. Connecting the cold side terminals through a resistive load causes a
current to flow in the electrical external circuit. Fig. 14: Galileo Space craft showing its Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs).
The Galileo space probe shown in Fig. 14, used RTGs in its mission to study the Jovian
environment. As Jupiter is far from the sun and Earth, solar cells cannot be used, and RTGs provided
a reliable long lasting source of electricity which is insensitive to the cold of space and is almost
invulnerable to high radiation fields such as the Earth’s Van Allen belts and the Jupiter’s
In Galileo each RTG weighted 55 kgs and contained about 11 kg of Plutonium238 dioxide fuel.
The fuel was pressed into 72 solid ceramic cylindrical 2.5 by 2,5 cm pellets. The RTGs are located in
such a way as to minimize their impact on the infra-red detecting science instruments, since
radioactive decay is accompanied by electromagnetic radiation mostly in the form of infrared
radiation, since the RTGs reach considerable temperatures. Galileo RTGs were mounted behind
shades to hide the near-infrared mapping spectrometer from their radiant heat.
The alpha decay of Pu238 leads to U234 with an energy release of 5.59 MeV per transformation,
provides the probe with 570 Watts(th) of power at launch. The power generation of Galileo would
decrease to 480 Watts(th) at its Jupiter destination. The power degradation is in fact around 2-3
percent per year, a little more than for solar panels.
If solar collectors would have been used, Galileo, which weighted 2.23 tons, would have
needed a minimum of 700 to 1,600 square feet of solar panels, which is about the size of a house.
Galileo was launched in October of 1989 and reached Jupiter in December of 1995. Galileo dropped
instrumental probes into Jupiter’s atmosphere, and sent photographs of the icy surface of its moon
Europa, which suggest that it had a salt-water ocean beneath its icy surface. It proved that the
Ganymede and Calisto moons have layers of liquid water as well. This is the only known possibility
other than Mars of existence of life in the rest of our solar system. 3.12 PLANETARY EXPLORATION The planet that has the most plausible possibility of having life in the past or the present is
Mars. In the future, with planetary engineering, Mars could be made to harbor life in some form.
Measurements by the spacecraft Viking I and II determined that Mars is a self-sterilizing planet. This
is due to the high ultra violet radiation it receives from the sun and explains its dry soil and soil
chemistry, which cannot sustain life on its surface. That does not exclude the possibility of life in
more protected areas in its canyons or under its surface. Fig. 16: Mars Sojourner sampling a Martian rock. It uses Radiosiotopes Heating Units (RHUs)
to maintain a desirable operating temperature of its electrical components during the cold
Martian nights. Fig. 17: Mars rover as part of the Mars Surveyor program requires Radioisotope Heating Units
(RHUs). Source: NASA. Fig. 18: Spirit Mars Rover. Source: NASA.
With the robotics probes used to explore Mars such as the 1997 Mars Pathfinder rover
Sojourner shown in Fig. 16 and the rover depicted in Fig. 17, solar energy is insufficient to power the
vehicles and keep its batteries from freezing during the Martian night. Thus RTGs were used to
generate enough heat to warm their batteries and its electronic circuits which are charged by its solar
collectors during the Martian day. The Sojourner rover weighted 23 pounds and was equipped with
three cameras and an alpha, proton, and X-ray spectrometer. It landed on Mars using a parachute and
airbags. It used solar arrays and batteries in addition to the RHUs for its power and heat generation.
The Lander and rover can use solar arrays and batteries for power but would need RHUs to
keep the electrical components warm enough to survive the cold Martian nights. These robotic
explorers were able to trek up to 100 meters across the surface each Martian day. Each rover carried
a set of instruments to search for evidence of liquid water that may have been present in the planet’s
past. The rovers were identical to each other but landed in different regions of Mars. The science
instruments included a panoramic camera, a miniature thermal emission spectrometer, a Mössbauer
Spectrometer, an alpha, proton x-ray spectrometer and a microscopic imager. 3.13 DISCUSSION
The use of power as heat and electricity from radioisotope will continue to be indispensable
for space exploration. As technology grows, the need for more power and more heat will
undoubtedly grow along with it. At some point for a manned mission to Mars the need would arise
for a nuclear reactor system to provide power at a magnitude that isotopes alone cannot provide. In
addition because of its higher specific impulse compared with a chemical one, a nuclear rocket may
in fact be used to propel the space-ship to Mars reducing its travel time from a year to a few weeks or
months. EXERCISES 1. A space probe needs a Radioisotope Heating Unit (RHU) to heat its equipment in the cold of space
away from the sun. The isotope Pu238, an alpha emitter is used in space applications and can produce
the needed thermal energy. For a thermal power of 5 Watts what would be the weight needed for this
generator in grams?
2. If thermoelectricity can be used at a conversion efficiency of 40 percent, what would be the needed
weight be to produce 5 Watts of electrical power?
3. If the radioisotope Sr-90 is used instead of Plutonium-238, what would be the weight of the isotope
in the two cases above?
Access the Table of the Nuclides and mine for the data concerning its half-life, and the energy
emitted in the radioactive decay.
204 4. The isotope Thallium
81 204 has a half life of 3.78 years. It decays through beta decay to Pb
82 with a branching ratio of 97.1 percent with decay energy of 0.764 MeV. It also decays through electron
204 capture to Hg
80 with a branching ratio of 2.9 percent with decay energy of 0.347 MeV. a. Calculate its total specific activity in [Becquerels/gm].
b. Calculate its total specific activity in [Curies/gm].
c. Calculate the specific power generation in thermal [Watts(th)/gm].
d. For a 100 Watts of thermal power in a Radioisotope Heating Unit (RHU) power generator, how
204 many grams of Thallium
81 are needed? 5. After 3.78 years of operation, what would its power become?
5. The isotope 38Strontium90 is a pure beta emitter without gamma rays emissions. This makes it
particularly suitable for radio isotopic power generation. Its half-life is 29 years and its average beta
energy per disintegration is 0.21 MeV. It decays into Yttrium90 which has a half life of 64 hours and
average beta particle energy per disintegration of 0.89 MeV. The two isotopes are in secular
equilibrium or have the same activity. The Yttrium90 isotope decays into stable Zirconium90.
1. Calculate the total specific activity in Becquerels per gram of a mixture of Sr90 in secular
equilibrium with its Y90 daughter nuclide.
2. Calculate the specific power generation in thermal Watts/gm.
3. For a 100 Watts of thermal power in a radioisotope heating unit (RHU) power generator, how
many grams of 38Sr90 in equilibrium with Y90 are needed?
4. After ten years of operation, what would its power become?
Use: 1 MeV/sec=1.602x10-13 Watts, Av=0.602x1024 [nuclei/mole].
6. A radioisotope power generator uses the isotope 84Polonium210. If its specific thermal power is
141[Watts(th)/gm], its half life is 0.38 year, and the thermal to electrical conversion efficiency is 20
1. The weight of the isotope needed to produce 30 Watts(e) of electrical power.
2. The electric power after 0.76 year of operation.
3. The electric power after 1.52 years of operation. REFERENCES
1. Robert L. Mead and William R. Corliss, “Power from Radioisotopes,” USAEC, Division of
Technical Information, 1966. 2.
3. Gerhart Friedlander, Joseph W. Kennedy and Julian Malcolm Miller, “Nuclear and
Radiochemistry,” John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York, 1966.
B. Povh, K. Rith, C. Scholz, and F. Zetche, “Particles and Nuclei, An Introduction to the
Physical Concepts,” Springer, 1995. ...
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This note was uploaded on 06/16/2010 for the course NPRE 402 taught by Professor Ragheb during the Spring '08 term at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
- Spring '08