US engineers work to develop compact isotope generator

Modern-day medical procedures require radioactive isotopes with increasing frequency, since they allow doctors to look inside patients non-invasively. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these isotopes are created in old, overused nuclear reactors, which have led to serious supply disruptions.

Now, thanks to $500,000 (£315,000) in funding from the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, a programme of research led by leaders of the Morgridge Institute for Research, engineers at Phoenix Nuclear Labs, Wisconsin-Madison University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has been chartered with the goal of developing a new type of isotope generator that is compact and relatively inexpensive and that does not require a nuclear reactor.

Once developed, the generator could be used to produce molybdenum-99, an isotope that produces technetium-99m, the most important radioisotope for detecting metastatic cancer and staging heart disease, studying brain and kidney function and creating images of stress fractures.

Instead of using a nuclear reactor to make the isotopes, the new generator uses nuclear fusion reactions (at a much lower efficiency than is required to produce electrical power) to create neutrons and protons, which, in turn, create radioisotopes such as molybdenum-99, iodine-131 and iodine-125.

The process was developed by UW-Madison medical physics researcher and current university provost Paul DeLuca and engineers at Phoenix Nuclear Labs.

A more compact version of the isotope generator could be used at the bedside to produce PET isotopes such as fluorine-18, oxygen-15, nitrogen-13 and carbon-11. Isotopes such as these are used to treat and/or produce high-quality images of many diseases, including, but not limited to, cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and Coronary Artery Disease.

The co-operative agreement between the outfits is part of an effort by US agencies to develop a sustainable means of producing molybdenum-99 as part of a commercial supply network that avoids a single point of failure and that does not use highly enriched uranium.

Thomas Mackie, a director at the Morgridge Institute for Research and a principal scientific investigator for the project, said that such a new generator would enable a plant to supply one half of the total US demand for molybdenum-99 – a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars.