National Nuclear Laboratory


Monday 28 September 2020

New Contract for NNL to Progress Space Battery Work

We’re pleased to announce a major new contract from the European Space Agency for NNL to carry our further ground-breaking work on the development of “space batteries” powered by americium-241. The work has been ongoing for several years and this new contract – valued at 1M euro – will focus on providing a greater quantity of Am-241 to enable test work on pellet manufacturing to be undertaken at the Joint Research Centre (JRC) facility in Germany. This contract represents a key step in the increasing maturity of the technology, leading to a potential lunar mission later this decade.

Previous work in this area has seen a number of achievements – culminating in the lighting of a lightbulb using electricity generated by the heat produced by the Am-241 decay. That milestone represented the first nuclear-powered electricity generated in Cumbria since the closure of the iconic Calder Hall reactors, and was widely acclaimed as a breakthrough moment by key stakeholders. Americium is a highly radioactive, heat-generating element which does not occur naturally in the environment,  but which is itself formed from the radioactive decay of plutonium. Aside from the use of tiny quantities in smoke detectors, americium is generally regarded as a waste material – so development of a major commercial use for greater quantities is particularly important.

Under the terms of the new contract a researcher from NNL’s academic partner, the University of Leicester, will participate in the research work at JRC. The work will also involve a number of experimental “runs” in NNL’s Central Laboratory on the Sellafield site to extract Am-241 from the UK’s stockpile of stored plutonium, which is owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and securely managed on the site by Sellafield Limited. This work is possible as a result of continuing UK Government investment in the European Space Agency.

Tim Tinsley, NNL’s Account Director for Special Nuclear Materials and Radioisotopes, commented:

“It’s great to see the work continuing and the relationship between the NNL, University of Leicester and the Joint Research Centre continue to strengthen. Our focus continues to be the maturing of the technology ready to deliver ESA missions later this decade”

Keith Stephenson of the European Space Agency added:

This new European nuclear technology will power deep space and planetary missions that cannot rely on solar energy generation. ESA’s forthcoming lunar exploration missions could use Am-241 to survive and operate over multiple lunar days and nights, greatly increasing the mission benefits and science return.”