FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | November 06, 2018

'Plutonium-238 production for space exploration' named National Historic Chemical Landmark

WASHINGTON, Nov. 6, 2018 — Production of a plutonium isotope that made decades of space exploration feasible was designated as the American Chemical Society’s (ACS’) newest National Historic Chemical Landmark on Nov. 1. The technologically demanding work was carried out at Savannah River Site (SRS) in Aiken, South Carolina. The ceremony recognizing the designation was held at the SRS Heritage Museum in Aiken. This is the first ACS landmark recognized in the state.

“Production and purification of this plutonium isotope represented the culmination of an extraordinary collaboration among scientists, engineers and thousands of other employees at Savannah River Site,” says ACS President Peter K. Dorhout, Ph.D. “The American Chemical Society is honoring their work because chemistry was central to that effort.”

“Forty years later, their ideas and processes are still being used to help us explore the bounds of space — a true testament to its historical significance,” says Michael Budney, manager of the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Operations Office. “Many people dedicated their working lives to programs like plutonium-238 production at the Savannah River Site. They were never really able to tell their family or friends what they did. I hope this designation allows them to finally say, ‘We did that.’ ”

Providing electricity and heat to a spacecraft in flight is challenging, given the vast distances and intense cold of space. Beginning in 1960, SRS helped meet this challenge by making plutonium-238 to fuel nuclear batteries aboard spacecraft. The batteries power and warm spacecraft and the research instruments they carry, making the exploration of deep space possible. SRS produced nearly all of the plutonium-238 for every U.S. mission that has relied on these batteries. Some of the spacecraft are continuing their missions even now, including the Voyager 2 probe, which has studied Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Production of plutonium-238 at SRS ended in 1988 as the Cold War came to a close. Stockpiles of the fuel, used for space missions since then, were projected to be depleted this year. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Energy addressed the looming shortage by reestablishing production of plutonium-238 at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for future NASA missions.

In addition to the festivities at the SRS Heritage Museum, the Nov. 1 celebration of the new landmark included a technical symposium about the production and use of plutonium-238. The symposium was part of the Southeastern Regional Meeting of ACS, which took place at the Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center in Augusta, Georgia.

The new landmark was also mentioned in Episode 1 of Orbitals, ACS’ new monthly podcast.

ACS established the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program in 1992 to recognize seminal events in the history of chemistry and to increase awareness of the contributions of chemistry to society. Past landmarks include the discovery and production of penicillin, the invention of synthetic plastics, and the works of such notable scientific figures as educator George Washington Carver and environmentalist Rachel Carson. For more information, visit www.acs.org/landmarks.

The American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society, is a not-for-profit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. ACS is a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related information and research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. ACS does not conduct research, but publishes and publicizes peer-reviewed scientific studies. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

To automatically receive press releases from the American Chemical Society, contact newsroom@acs.org.

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Heat from plutonium-238 oxide pellets powers nuclear batteries for spacecraft.
Credit: U.S. Department of Energy
High-resolution image