The Future of Radioactivity

Contributor: Hannah Brooks. Lesson ID: 12498

Ask a senior citizen about "duck and cover." Look for "Attack of the Giant (whatevers)" movies from the 50s and 60s. Despite fears of atomic power, science marches on. What will they find in your day?

categories

Chemistry

subject
Science
learning style
Visual
personality style
Lion
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

Despite the controversies, the efforts to harness the power of the atom continue. How might radioactive elements be used in the future?

Just think of how far the understanding of radioactive elements has grown in the last 100 years.

  • How might it change during the next 100 years?

There are many useful applications of radioactivity, but there are also many drawbacks.

Before continuing, if you skipped or need to review the nine previous Radioactivity Related Lessons, find them in the right-hand sidebar.

One of the most promising technologies under development is a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. This tool generates electrical energy from the heat created when plutonium decays. A radioisotope thermoelectric generator can run continuously, constantly generating power between the two plates called thermocouples.

  • How might this change the way we generate electricity in the future?

The radioactive plutonium is held in the larger boxes shown in the image below:

 New Horizons Radioisotope thermoelectric generator diagram

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain in the United States because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that "NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted."

This innovative power source uses plutonium to generate consistent power and could be used on a wider scale to produce more energy for humans. While it does require nuclear material, the waste produced is very small. A radioisotope thermoelectric generator could solve some of the issues related to the production and storage of nuclear waste on Earth.


Another potential change is the use of thorium in nuclear power breeder reactors. Thorium is another radioactive element that can be used in a different kind of nuclear power plant called a breeder reactor. In a breeder reactor, the nuclear reaction from the decay of thorium drives a new reaction that changes protactinium into uranium. This chain reaction drives itself, requring and producing less nuclear waste than a traditional reactor.

  • Did you know that nuclear waste is more radioactive than nuclear fuel?

Nuclear waste is more radioactive because it has been activated through energy formation processes. That is one reason why nuclear waste is such an important issue to consider!


Radioactive elements are also used in medicine, so there are possibilities for improvements in medical treatments in the future. One of the most interesting possibilities is the development of true personalized medicine, where the treatment matches the patient exactly. In the future, doctors may be able to use radioactive tracers and analysis of genetic material to create personalized care plans and treatments that are specific to individuals. This would drastically change the way we treat medical conditions and make treatments far more efficient!

Radioactivity is such an interesting and useful characteristic of elements. There are so many ways you can use these elements to improve daily life and to deepen the understanding of our world. There is much that is unknown about the impact of radioactive elements, and that can be scary.

Consider some of the potential issues that could arise from the use of radioactive elements in the future. Brainstorm a list of five ways radioactive elements could be used in the future, and then add one potential drawback for each application.

In the Got It? section, you will watch a video to learn about how our world is affected today based on past decisions.

Elephango's Philosophy

We help prepare learners for a future that cannot yet be defined. They must be ready for change, willing to learn and able to think critically. Elephango is designed to create lifelong learners who are ready for that rapidly changing future.