Nuclear technology has multiple applications that are fundamental to our daily life. The best-known applications are medicine and electricity production, but there are others in such diverse fields as agriculture, industry and art.
These applications have a large presence in our day to day life, and in the future they will be even more relevant as research is increasing their possibilities of application and justifying their use.
In this infographic you can see the 10 most significant applications of nuclear technology:
Along with the production of electric energy, nuclear medical techniques are perhaps the most widely known. In the developed Western world, diagnostics and treatment techniques have become so regular, reliable and precise that approximately one in every three patients undergoes some type of therapeutic or diagnostic procedures.
Nuclear technology is applied to various branches of medicine: oncology, cardiology, neurology, pneumology or pediatrics.
Medical professionals use diagnostic techniques such as radio pharmaceuticals, scans or radioisotopes, and apply radiotherapy treatments that include X rays as well as radiations from radioactive elements or radiation-producing equipment such as accelerators.
Beyond diagnostics and the treatment of diseases, nuclear technology is used to sterilize medical equipment, learn about biological processes with the use of tracers or study the properties of tumorous cells, among other uses.
30 million people in the world benefit from nuclear medicine.
Nuclear technology is applied in branches of medicine such as oncology, cardiology, neurology, pneumology or pediatrics.
Isotope hydrology is a nuclear technique that uses both stable and radioactive isotopes to follow the movements of the water in the hydrologic cycle. These isotopes can be used to research subterraneous fresh water sources and determine their origin, their type of charge, whether there is a risk of intrusion or contamination by salt water and whether it is possible to use them in a sustainable manner.
By registering the levels of radioactive tritium on the ground at different depths it is possible to measure the charging rate, a critical aspect in the management of water resources. Climatologists can put together more reliable data on the evolution of climate and determine the impact of future events. Nuclear techniques have also been successfully applied to solve various pollution problems such as those caused by sulphur dioxide, gas discharges at ground level, in oil spills, in agricultural residues, in water contamination and in the contamination generated by cities.
Another interesting use is neutronic probes, used to measure humidity. They are ideal to make the most of limited water resources. In some cases it was possible to save up to 40% of the water.
Thanks to nuclear techniques, climatologists can obtain more reliable data on the evolution of climate.
In the field of agriculture, radio isotope and radiation techniques are applied to improve the quality of food by inducing mutations in plants and seeds to obtain the desired crop varieties without having to wait out the long process of natural mutation. Nuclear technology is also very useful in pest control, increasing food production and reducing the amount of necessary fertilizers.
In the field of food, direct irradiation of food reduces losses after harvest and improves the quality of the food by increasing itsperiod of conservation. This technique consumes less energy than conventional methods and can replace or radically reduce the use of additives and fumigants. As it is a cold process, treated food items retain their freshness and physical conditions.
Direct irradiation of food is a technique accepted and recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Nuclear technology improves the quality of food and extends its period of conservation.
The use of isotopes and radiations in modern industry is highly important to the development and improvement of processes, measurement, automatization and quality control. Currently, almost all branches of science use them in different ways.
For instance, tracers are used in expensive industrial equipment to obtain information that makes it possible to extend its operative life. Another application involves obtaining X-rays of the internal structure of certain pieces to check their quality without damaging or altering the material’s composition.
A very common application is X-ray radiography. It makes it possible to get a deep look at a work of art to determine the author’s technique, the change of composition introduced by the artist, previous restorations or its authenticity, among many other aspects.
This is a non-destructive technique that was first applied to the study of a painting in 1895, at the University of Munich. It was used systematically after 1914, with Faber’s work.
Nuclear technology is also used to determine the age of works of art. In this case the technique uses carbon-14, which consists of determining the amount of this isotope contained in an organic body to find out the sample’s age.
Nuclear technology makes it possible to find out the age and authenticity of works of art.
One of the main applications of nuclear batteries is space navigation. It involves feeding the instrumentation of terrestrial satellites and planetary probes with more powerful generators so that they can reach nearby planets and send information to Earth.
Unmanned trips to planets beyond the Earth’s solar system were carried out in missions with robotic equipment fed by the electricity produced by the radio isotope plutonium-238. This isotope has a half-life of 87.74 years. It can remain active long enough to power space missions for several centuries.
Did you ever hear about nuclear batteries? They are used in interplanetary trips and can last several years.