UK scientists say they’ve found a rare element capable of powering future deep space missions for up to four centuries.

The element americium is a by-product of plutonium decay, which itself is produced during the operation of nuclear reactors.

Right now, it’s basically a highly radioactive waste product.

But scientists at the UK-government owned National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) used americium from the country’s plutonium stockpile to generate enough electric current to light up a small lightbulb.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a big deal. Check it out:


NNL’s Tim Tinsley says lighting this lightbulb was the culmination of many years of specialist technical work.

“It is great to think that americium can be used in this way, recycling something that is a waste from one industry into a significant asset in another,” he says.

The breakthrough means the heat from americium pellets could potentially power spacecraft heading into deep space — or to challenging environments on planet surfaces where other power sources (like solar panels) don’t work.

The unrivalled energy density of nuclear power sources enables a whole range of missions that would be otherwise impossible.

Chris Bicknell, who worked on the power generator, says we need to push the boundaries of space exploration, innovations in power generation, robotics, autonomous vehicles and advanced instrumentation.

“Radioisotope power sources are an important technology for future European space exploration missions as their use would result in more capable spacecraft, and probes that can access distant, cold, dark and inhospitable environments,” Bicknell says.

“This is an important step in achieving these goals.”

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