Nuclear Engineering Division

Nuclear Chemical Engineering

Radioisotope Research and Development

Radioisotope production and purification bridge multiple disciplines—radiochemistry, inorganic and organic chemistry, physics, material science, and nuclear engineering­—to develop life-saving pharmaceutical components for both diagnostic and therapeutic applications. Though many isotopes are produced in uranium-fueled research reactors, there is an increasing desire to produce radioisotopes with a variety of accelerators that do not require highly-enriched uranium (HEU). Currently, ion accelerators are already producing medical isotopes, but, to date, electron accelerators are not routinely used. At Argonne National Laboratory, our work is centered on developments at the electron linear accelerator (LINAC) housed in the Low Energy Accelerator Facility (LEAF).  This LINAC has undergone significant upgrades to increase the maximum energy up to 50 MeV and the beam power to over 20 kW. This LINAC can now be used for the production of radioisotopes via photonuclear reactions through the DOE Isotope Program. As a first step towards routine production of medical isotopes at Argonne, we have developed a universal Radioisotope Target Station (RITS) now installed at the LEAF for the production of radioisotopes from solid targets. The RITS has a dedicated water-cooling station and is also equipped with exchangeable convertor and target cartridges that can easily be adapted for a variety of production geometries. To minimize radiation doses received by the workers, the target station has incorporated an automated extraction mechanism to retrieve targets into a shielded transport cask. Research conducted at the LEAF can support production of isotopes not only for medicine but also for applications in biology, environmental and basic sciences, and national security. Parties interested in isotope production at the LEAF facility should contact the DOE Isotope Program National Isotope Development Center at

Three beamlines enable multiple target stations to be in place.


Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) is the parent of technetium-99m (Tc-99m), the most widely used radioisotope in nuclear medicine. Currently, there are no U.S. domestic producers of Tc-99m or Mo-99. Argonne has been investigating methods of production of Mo-99 that do not use enriched U-235 in the processes. This R&D program is funded through the NNSA Office of Material Management and Minimization to demonstrate scalable, safe, and reliable production, recovery, and purification of Mo-99 that meets the required pharmaceutical standards for use of Tc-99m. One method under study is fission of low-enriched uranium-235 in a subcritical aqueous solution using accelerator-based neutron generation.  Another method under development is the photonuclear reaction 100Mo(γ,n)99Mo, driven by the irradiation of Mo-100 enriched targets at the LINAC. Using Argonne’s LEAF, these production methods and the associated chemical processing methods have graduated from test-tube to pilot-scale. Although the Argonne team conducts research on Mo-99 production, the LEAF accelerator is not used for the commercial production of Mo-99.

Therapeutic Isotopes

In the fight against cancers and infectious diseases, radionuclide therapy utilizes the ionizing nature of certain radioactive isotopes to destroy malignant biological tissue. When properly complexed, the radioisotope can be systematically delivered to a targeted organ in order to deposit a therapeutic dose to tumorous sites. Argonne’s LINAC can produce a variety of important medical isotopes with high specific activity, such as copper-67, scandium-47, and many others, through photonuclear reactions on various targets. Both copper-67 and scandium-47 are suited for targeted therapy of various diseases while they also simultaneously provide diagnostics by real-time gamma-ray imaging of the treatment. These are known as “theranostic” isotopes. The LEAF scientists and engineers fully address all production issues for each isotope from target design, dissolution, and recovery to chemical separations, theoretical simulations, and safety/dosimetry.


Support of the Mo-99 R&D program at Argonne, including the upgrade of the electron LINAC, was provided by the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Office of Material Management and Minimization (M3). Support for Cu-67 and the isotope production station was provided by the DOE Isotope Program administered by the Office of Nuclear Physics under the Office of Science. The development of other promising isotopes such as Sc-47 is being supported by the Argonne LDRD program and the eventual production of the isotope will be through the DOE Isotope Program.

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Related Information

Argonne's Low-Energy Accelerator Facility
Low-Energy Accelerator Facility

LEAF Brochure [ 20KB]
Last updated: 05/25/17