A British start-up, Astral Systems, is developing small fusion reactors that focus on producing radioactive isotopes for medical applications. The company believes that practical fusion power plants are still many decades away.
The demand for radioactive isotopes is high in the medical field, where they are used to kill cancer cells with radiation therapy or as radioactive tracers to detect and image diseases. However, obtaining these isotopes can be difficult and expensive due to their short lifespan and need for quick production, delivery, and use.
A UK government report from 2017 indicated that only a few large fission reactors produce the majority of the world’s medical isotope reserves. Many of these reactors will be closed by 2030, leading to a shortage of these critical substances in medicine. To address this issue, Astral Systems aims to build small fusion reactors that could be installed in regional isotope plants to provide cheaper and more flexible supplies of radioactive isotopes.
Astral Systems’ reactors sustain fusion reactions and are used to produce neutrons, which are then used to create isotopes by bombarding other elements. The company aims to produce isotopes such as iodine-131, lutetium-177, and actinium-225 but must first pass clinical trials before they can be used in medicine.
The closure of fission reactors has led to shortages of medical isotopes in the UK after Brexit introduced delays and unavailability of shipments. This has had a significant impact on hospitals in the country, leading to delays in conducting scans and other medical procedures that require these substances.
In conclusion, while practical fusion power plants may still be many decades away, small fusion reactors could play an essential role in providing radioactive isotopes for cancer treatment or medical imaging. Astral Systems’ efforts could help alleviate current shortages and ensure access to critical substances in medicine for years to come.