A More Stable Source of Stable Isotopes
In nature, chemical elements can exist as a blend of different isotopes but to produce a single isotope—separated from the rest, enriched for technological use—requires complicated and expensive machinery. Various political, technical and environmental factors have led to a looming shortage of stable isotopes like lithium-7 and molybdenum-99, which are necessary for nuclear power and medical imaging respectively. As a result, stable isotopes are some of the world’s most expensive chemical commodities.
Cold War-era machines known as calutrons now produce valuable isotopes in Russia, but the machines’ age, high operating costs and regional concentration have contributed to stable isotopes’ global supply problem.
“One ounce of a stable isotope that needs the calutron to separate it can run around $3 million,” says UT Austin professor of physics and Sid Richardson Foundation Regents Chair Mark Raizen. “That’s roughly 2,000 times the price of gold. And that has held back certain medical therapies.”
Raizen and his colleagues recently devised a new method for enriching valuable stable isotopes that’s cheaper than existing methods for many isotopes and more environmentally friendly for others.
Unlike the calutron, the new method, called MAGIS (for magnetically activated and guided isotope separation), needs little energy due to its use of low-powered lasers and permanent magnets. A less expensive, domestic source of stable isotopes like the MAGIS device could benefit national security, nuclear power, medical imaging, cancer therapies, nutritional diagnostics and more.
“I believe this is world-changing in a way that is unique among all the projects that I have done. And I do feel passionately about it,” said Raizen, who has created a nonprofit entity, the Pointsman Foundation, to license the technology to explore and develop isotopes to benefit humanity.