In the quest to develop lithography machines that can produce ever smaller chip components, Dutch machine manufacturer ASML has discovered a way to produce medical isotopes using an electron laser (presentation video in Dutch). To produce ever smaller chips, ASML uses ever more energy intensive light energy sources. Currently ASML is introducing new machines using extreme ultra violet (EUV) light produced from a plasma laser. But ASML is already researching potential light energy sources for the next generation. Research with a free electron laser showed the potential to produce isotopes.
The free electron laser works much like a linear particle accelerator which propels charged particles (in this case electrons) towards a target thus forming photons or other particles. Those can then hit a secondary target where isotopes can be created.
According to a feasibility study conducted by ASML and its partners this technology (named lighthouse) can also be used to produce medical isotopes such as Molybdenum-99. Medical isotopes are used in nuclear medicine, for both diagnosis (nuclear imaging) and treatment (interventional nuclear medicine).These isotopes are currently produced in special nuclear reactors such as the Dutch reactor in Petten which produces about thirty percent of medical isotopes globally. These reactors use a nuclear reaction to produce the neutron radiation needed for the creation of radioisotopes. This requires high cost due to safety concerns and leads to the production of nucleair waste.
The new method of production appears to be a good alternative requiring a smaller installation with lower operating cost and almost completely eliminating production of nuclear waste. The production method also has the potential to produce different radioisotopes than is currently common.