The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico announced on Monday it had tapped a low-enriched uranium fuel sample for nearly its full yield of a critical medical isotope, hinting at an alternative to bomb-usable uranium for generating the substance.
The decay of molybdenum 99 produces technetium 99m, which is widely used in diagnostic health procedures. The isotope is presently not produced in the United States and largely comes by use of highly enriched uranium fuel sources in provider nations such as Canada. International manufacturing sites have faced closures and other technical problems in recent years, contributing to the material's scarcity.
The separation process used particle acceleration to draw molybdenum 99 from a slightly acidic low-enriched uranium solution, according to a Los Alamos press release. The technique mirrored a proposed process for generating the material on a larger scale, the laboratory said without specifying when mass production might begin.
Scientists faced a significant challenge in the need to separate isotopes from a much larger quantity of uranium without altering remaining material into new forms unsuitable for recycling, the statement says. In the latest experiment, though, there was "no observable loss in ... Mo-99 recovery" after irradiating and extracting isotopes from the uranium three times.
"The results confirm the viability of both the Mo-99 separation process and uranium fuel recycling, which can lower operating costs and minimize waste generation," according to the laboratory.
The project took place under the auspices of the National Nuclear Security Administration. The NNSA Global Threat Reduction Initiative has collaborated with U.S. national laboratories and private firms to promote manufacturing of molybdenum 99 without highly enriched uranium.