Isotope Science and Engineering

We produce isotopes not available anywhere else in the world, allowing for the discovery of new elements, life-saving medical treatments, industry applications, deep space exploration, and national security.

About the Isotope Science and Engineering Directorate

The directorate is focused on isotope science and technology, delivering high-impact isotopes that offer a range of applications for industry, science, and medicine, making ORNL a world leader in isotope research, development, and production. 

It is built upon the foundational science performed during the Manhattan Project, when the Lab pioneered world-changing technologies and applications to harness the atom. Using the X-10 Graphite Reactor, the world’s first continuously operated nuclear reactor, ORNL worked to better understand and produce strategically important isotopes. Today, the Lab uses its institutional knowledge and leading nuclear facilities for breakthrough technological innovations.

The directorate is working on advancing the application and production of stable and radioactive isotopes for scientific discovery, life-saving medical treatments, industrial applications, deep space exploration, and national security; advancing technology as the nation’s steward of enrichment science and engineering; and operating, maintaining, and expanding the Lab’s complex of nuclear facilities.

ENABLING DEEP SPACE EXPLORATION

In 2015, ORNL produced 50 grams of plutonium-238, restoring the nation’s capability after nearly 30 years. Since that achievement, the Lab has continued advancing the production of the valuable radioisotope—leveraging the Lab’s High Flux Isotope Reactor and the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center, ORNL’s largest hot cell facility—moving closer to the goal of 1.5 kg of Pu-238 annually by 2025. Because of this success, NASA is considering additional deep space missions in the coming decades, and the Mars 2020 mission is using ORNL-produced Pu-238 to help power the Perseverance rover.

The research portfolio for the directorate spans three divisions and advances key science, technology, and engineering capabilities while building a competitive world-class workforce to meet our future mission needs.

The Radioisotope Science and Technology Division provides leadership in actinide science, delivers innovations in isotope production technology, and advances the field of radiochemical processing methods to provide for the production and delivery of radioisotopes for science, medicine, industry, and security. The division’s focuses include improving irradiation target assemblies, developing production infrastructure, pursuing new isotopes, and researching innovative radioisotope applications.

The Enrichment Science and Engineering Division is the national steward for research, development, and demonstration of centrifuge technology innovations; advances electromagnetic isotope separations technology; and delivers stable isotopes for medical, industrial, and DOE mission critical applications. The division works with state-of-the-art systems, applying advanced theoretical and engineering analysis principles to design machines and manufacture prototypes using novel fabrication tools and techniques. Researchers are focused on conceptualizing, developing, and deploying enrichment systems, including designing robust, flexible testbeds with advanced control system architectures. The division also leads new enriched isotope production approaches.

The Nonreactor Nuclear Facilities Division operates, maintains, and modernizes ORNL’s unique complex of nuclear facilities to support the ongoing and increasing demand for isotope production and nuclear fuels and materials development. This includes the facility infrastructure, staffing, and processes needed to support the Lab’s diverse R&D mission. The division also oversees transportation of nuclear materials on site in support of the lab’s missions. It provides safety support, through engineering designs for facility upgrades, evaluation of the methods used to implement R&D mission activities, training, work control, and document control.

Continuing ORNL’s Legacy in Isotopes

Established in 2020 as part of Reimagining ORNL, this new directorate is sharpening the Lab’s focus on the isotopes mission. Using the High Flux Isotope Reactor, the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center, and the Lab’s other hot cell facilities, this new directorate will grow the impact of the unique isotopes produced at ORNL. Just in the last decade, the Lab started production of actinium-227, a critical ingredient in a highly effective prostate cancer treatment; discovered tennessine, element 117; and produced ruthenium-96—the first ruthenium enriched in the United States since 1983—to support studies on fundamental nuclear physics. Each of these milestones represents the Lab’s leading-edge isotope production capabilities and sustains a legacy that began less than a year after World War II, when ORNL made its first official shipment of an isotope for treating cancer patients.

TEN-YEAR VISION

Over the next decade, we will answer the nation’s need for new applications and production of unique isotopes through our diverse staff of scientists and engineers and world-leading capabilities. 
 
Our vision enables us to:
 
  • Make vital science and technology advancements that expand the application and production of isotopes for science, medicine, industry, and security.
  • Carry out advancements and technology deployments that enable important national missions as the nation’s steward of enrichment technology, including centrifuge technology development, electromagnetic isotope separations technology advancement, and stable isotope production.
  • Operate, maintain, and expand the unique facilities that comprise ORNL’s isotopes and nuclear materials complex to ensure their continued impact for the next generation of nuclear scientists and engineers.

Isotope Science and Engineering Divisions, Sections and Groups

Radioisotope Science and Technology Division

The Radioisotope Science and Technology Division provides leadership in actinide science, delivers new innovations in isotope production technology and advances the field of radiochemical processing methods to provide for the production and delivery of radioisotopes for science, medicine, industry, and security.

Radioisotope Research and Development Section

Leadership in the science and technology of radioisotope target design, radiochemical separations, process development, and innovative applications.

  1. Target Design, Analysis, and Qualification Group — Design, modeling, and qualification of irradiation target assemblies.
  2. Target Production and Infrastructure Development Group — Engineering design and process development for fabrication and scaled-up production of target assemblies, as well as customized glove box and hot cell processing equipment.
  3. Radiochemical Separations Science Group — Development of chemical process methods to separate and extract isotopes from irradiated target assemblies.
  4. Emerging Isotopes Research Group — Focused on process development & optimization for new isotopes.
  5. Isotope Applications Research Group — Focused on radioisotope applications R&D.

Radioisotope Production and Operations Section

Production and delivery of radioisotopes for science, medicine, industry, and security.

  1. Bethel Valley Radiochemical Processing Group — Focused on production of radioisotopes in radiological and nuclear hazard category 3 facilities such as 4501 and 3047. Works in close partnership with NNFD.
  2. Melton Valley Radiochemical Processing Group — Focused on production of radioisotopes that require nuclear hazard category 2 facilities, such as REDC. Works in close partnership with NNFD.
  3. Technical Services, Finishing, and Dispensing Group — Responsible for purification, dispensing, packaging, and shipment of radioisotopes. Performs all laboratory work to provide the material in the quality, quantity, and physical form requested. Qualified to operate under current good manufacturing practices (cGMP).

Enrichment Science and Engineering Division

The Enrichment Science and Engineering Division is the national steward for research, development, and demonstration of centrifuge technology innovations; advances electromagnetic isotope separations technology; and delivers stable isotopes for medical, industrial, and DOE mission critical applications.

Centrifuge Engineering and Fabrication Section

National steward of expertise gas centrifuge research, development, and demonstration.

  1. Machine Dynamics Group — Centrifuge concepts and engineering analysis: Develops and applies advanced theoretical and engineering analysis principles to machine design and development.
  2. Engineering Design Group — Engineering design of components: Employs state of the art engineering design and robust systems engineering principles for the realization of design concepts and detailed prototype manufacturing requirements.
  3. Prototype Manufacturing Group — R&D manufacturing execution: Develops and demonstrates manufacturing and assembly approaches with application of novel fabrication tools and techniques.
  4. Modeling and Data Science Group — Application of first principles and empirical approaches: Advances the physics and engineering understanding of gas centrifuge systems.

Testing Science and Cascade Engineering Section

Develops and applies gas testing principles and leads conceptualization, development, and deployment of enrichment systems.

  1. Testbed Science and Engineering Group — Gas testing testbed development: Conceptualizes and designs robust and flexible testbeds for gas testing enrichment devices using state of the art systems engineering principles.
  2. Electrical, Instrumentation, and Controls Engineering Group — Human machine interface research and system logic development: Develops and implements advanced control system architectures for centrifuge test beds.
  3. Gas Testing Science Group — Development and interpretation of testing experiments: Leads the application of machine and cascade theory to develop, execute, and interpret testing evolutions for discovery, performance evaluation, and optimization of enrichment systems.
  4. R&D Operations Group — Execution of operations supporting testing: A team of expert operators and support staff available to lead and support testing operations.

Stable Isotope Research, Development, and Production Section

Leads the science and production process development that delivers stable isotopes for medical, industrial, and DOE mission critical applications.

  1. Stable Isotope Process Development Group — Conceptualize and assess new processes: Leads the development of new enriched stable isotope production approaches while supporting the execution of current missions.
  2. Dispensing and Technical Services Group — Customer-focused support: Leads the development and implementation of robust dispensing protocols consistent with sponsor and customer needs, and provides in-depth technical support for isotope utility in new and emerging applications.
  3. Production Operations Group — Execution of operations supporting production: A team of expert operators and support staff available to lead and support stable isotope production operations.

Nonreactor Nuclear Facilities Division

The Nonreactor Nuclear Facilities Division operates, maintains, and modernizes ORNL’s unique complex of nuclear facilities to support the ongoing and increasing demand for isotope production and nuclear fuels and materials development. This includes the facility infrastructure, staffing and processes needed to support the R&D mission.

Nuclear Facility Management Section

Maintain and update the nonreactor nuclear facilities to support the diverse nuclear R&D mission.

  1. REDC Facility Management Group — Maintain and update the facilities within the REDC complex to support the R&D mission.
  2. Bethel Valley Facility Management Group — Maintain and update the facilities within the Bethel Valley complex to support the R&D mission.
  3. Transportation and Asset Management Group — Provide for transportation of nuclear materials on-site in support of the ongoing mission, and develop strategic plans for the needed investments to sustain the nuclear facilities.
  4. System Engineering Group — Provide qualified engineers to support the maintenance and upgrades to the nuclear facilities including oversight to those systems that protect the public and workers.

Nuclear Operations Section

Conduct operations within the hot cell facilities to ensure safe and compliant execution of the R&D mission.

  1. 7920 Operations Group — Conduct operations within the 7920 hot cell facilities to ensure safe and compliant execution of the R&D mission.
  2. 7930 Operations Group — Conduct operations within the 7930 hot cell facilities to ensure safe and compliant execution of the R&D mission.
  3. 3525/3025 Operations Group — Conduct operations within the 3525/3025 hot cell facilities to ensure safe and compliant execution of the R&D mission.
  4. 3047 Operations Group — Conduct operations within the 3047 hot cell facilities to ensure safe and compliant execution of the R&D mission.

Safety Engineering and Support Section

Implements safety and management programs in support of the safe conduct of the diverse nuclear R&D mission.

  1. Design Engineering Group — Provides engineering designs for facility upgrades and for implementation of R&D mission activities.
  2. Hot Cell Operations Support Group — Provides support for the hot cell facilities operations including ESH&Q, training and document control.
  3. Nuclear Research Operations Group — Provides support for the R&D mission work outside the nuclear facilities including ESH&Q, training and work control.