6
$\begingroup$

There are few examples of radiotrophic ecosystems on Earth. Of those discovered, the radiotrophs are limited to single-celled organisms and unique mutant fungi.

The reason seems to be due to a lack of concentrated radiation. The Chernobyl reactor is an energy source similar to a star or steam vent, able to support more complicated organisms. What would be a natural equivalent that would drive high energy ecosystems seen on the surface and deep sea?

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

I think you could do this with Radon. Radon is radioactive and gives off alpha particles, which should be easier for a putative radiotrophic organism to handle than gamma rays. Radon is generated in the earths crust continuously. Being a gas which is generated in solid areas, it will tend to collect in pockets where it can - sort of like water collecting in favorable areas on the surface. These pockets can be shallow and so have access to nitrogen or nitrogenous compounds and other needed minerals percolating down from the surface.

You do not want your radioactive energy source to swing from nonexisting to sterilizingly strong (the latter being a problem with the spontaneous nuclear reactors). Those swings are bad for the critters. The good thing about radon in this context is that the creation of radon is fairly steady and continuous, and the half life and so breakdown (into nongas elements) is short. So these subsurface pockets of radon should have stable levels of radioactivity.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Is there enough energy produced to sustain ecosystems comparable to solar or geothermal? $\endgroup$ – Anonymous Sep 4 '17 at 22:31
  • $\begingroup$ I am pretty sure no. But I am having trouble calculating it. Radon emissions (alpha particles) are usually given in picocuries. Radioisotope thermoelectric generators also use isotopes that make alpha particles which are categorized by "isotopic power". But I cannot figure out how to convert one to another. Maybe a question for the physics stack... $\endgroup$ – Willk Sep 5 '17 at 17:12
1
$\begingroup$

Natural nuclear reactors are a thing. If might be possible that there are large deposit of radioactive material deep in the Earth that gives sustained power output. It is however thought that there isn't enough radioactive material in the upper crust of the Earth any more to sustain any natural reactors today.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.