Render of satellite with radioisotope engine. Source: Zeno Power Systems
January 26, the company Zeno Power Systems announced cooperation with the US Department of Energy, aimed at the secondary processing of decade-old radioactive material for the production of energy sources based on radioisotopes. The agreement provides Zeno the opportunity to use significant amounts of strontium-90, which is formed as a result of nuclear fission. With the help of this material the company develops systems RPS (Radioisotope Power Systems) — compact devices that convert energy from radioisotopes into electricity.
RPS technology was widely used by NASA for interplanetary missions, but the basic working system was plutonium-238, the supply of which was limited. Zeno solved this problem, creating RPS systems, running on Strontium-90, specifically designed for small satellites.
The company already has several contracts for the development of radioisotope systems RPS for national security, space exploration and submarine systems of the US Navy. General Director Zeno, Tyler Bernstein, reported that it is planned to deliver the first satellite on radioisotope energy to the US Air Force by 2026.
To implement the project on reprocessing radioisotopes company Zeno cooperates with the Environmental Management of the Ministry of Energy (OREM). One of the objects for the distribution of strontium-90 is a thermoelectric generator containing radioisotopes, created in the mid-1980s at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which has never been used. The Ministry of Energy planned to store the generator for 30 years before decommissioning it, but now it will be recycled and used as Zeno.
Director of OREM Jay Mallis called the agreement with Zeno «unwinnable», because it will allow to get rid of a significant source of radioactivity at the facility of the Ministry of Energy, while simultaneously supporting innovations in the field of nuclear energy.
Tyler Bernstein highlighted that Zeno chose strontium-90 as the fuel for the RPS system, as it is widespread and can satisfy needs that cannot be satisfied by plutonium-238. The Ministry of Energy is limited in the production of plutonium-238 for the main missions of NASA.
This collaboration reflects the growing interest in space nuclear energy. Bernstein notes that the Pentagon increasingly supports this technology, and the commercial industry is actively developing in this area. High mobility and stability of space vehicles with energy sources based on radioisotopes prove to be in demand. It is also important to note that with increased activity the perilunar and lunar atmosphere become an essential source of energy, not dependent on the Sun. Such systems are important components to support lunar missions.
This agreement between Zeno Power Systems and the Ministry of Energy results in benefits for both parties. It helps to remove significant sources of radioactivity and stimulates the development of nuclear energy. Zeno has already attracted contracts amounting to more than $40 million and expects further growth in orders.