THE GREAT PROMISE OF ISOTOPES

 

The world around us is made of atoms, comprising the periodic table of elements. Many elements have multiple isotopes, which only differ by the number of neutrons in the nucleus. These isotopes occur naturally with varying relative abundances. They can also be made artificially, leading to short-lived radioisotopes.                                                                                    

Isotopes are a great resource for humanity. In medicine, therapy with radioactive seeds shows great promise in treating tumors. Radio-immunotherapy, where cancer cells are directly targeted and destroyed, offer a long-sought treatment for certain aggressive forms of cancer. Medical imaging with radioisotopes provides diagnosis of illness. Stable isotopes can be used as tracers for metabolism of minerals crucial for our health. It is clear that we are just on the threshold of finding many exciting new uses of isotopes that will benefit our lives. 

SHORTAGE OF ISOTOPES

 

The starting point for isotope separation was the Calutron; it was developed in 1930 by Ernest Lawrence as a machine to separate stable isotopes of the elements. The Calutron was combined with the parallel development of the ability to transmute stable isotopes into radioisotopes. Ironically, although the Calutron was invented in the US, the only remaining operational large-scale Calutrons are in Russia, and even those were built over 60 years ago.

 

Recent reports by the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the U.S. Nuclear Science Advisory Committee to the Department of Energy alert to impending isotope shortages.  Near total dependence on Russian Calutrons creates a fragile supply chain, especially in light of their age, operating expense, and geopolitical tensions. This creates an urgent need for a new domestic and efficient method for isotope production.

Ernest Lawrence