Diamond Nuclear Batteries : The Future of Power Generation


Diamond Nuclear Batteries

Since the early 1900s, researchers have been working on ways to turn radioactive material into an electric current that lasts for decades. Yes, that’s right. We’re talking about nuclear batteries! This class of batteries is known as Betavoltaics, and they’re powered by the beta-decay of a radioactive material—hence the name. Beta particles are basically just high-energy electrons, so setting a beta-emitting material up next to a semiconductor is virtually all you need to get an electric current in motion. Though their power output can be pretty low (we’re talking’ less than an AA battery), they last as long as it takes the material to decay. And since radioactive materials can have half-lives of centuries to millennia that mean batteries that could last for decades without any noticeable power loss.

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Diamond Nuclear Batteries : The Future of Power Generation

As an aside, betavoltaics are different from the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (or RTGs) that NASA uses for space missions. Those are powered by the HEAT of radioactive materials, like plutonium, instead of beta particles directly—and are also sometimes referred to as nuclear batteries. But betavoltaics can be made smaller and safer than RTGs and with the incredibly long lifetimes those nuclear promises. Back in 1954, the Radio Corporation of America announced the development of their first betavoltaic battery. And at the time, it was a big deal. RCA imagined them getting used in wristwatches, hearing aids, and radios. And within the February 1954 issue of LIFE magazine, RCA even compared their invention to Edison’s light bulb. But, while light bulbs are literally everywhere, I would wager you probably don’t own a device that runs on nuclear batteries.


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Today, betavoltaics are mainly used in deep space and military applications – far away from the average consumer. And there are a lot of factors involved as to why that is, but a big one is safety. Like I said before, betavoltaics are safer than other atomic power systems, but some beta-emitting materials can still be pretty dangerous. For example, RCA’s prototype from 1954 ran on Strontium-90, exposure to which may cause leukemia. And albeit their battery was coated with radiation blocking materials, it still probably wasn’t the safest thing handy off to anyone walking down the road . But we’ve come a long way!


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Hazardous Material

In recent years, several research teams are trying to find how to securely harness the facility of betavoltaics. And one team at the University of Bristol is making one out of Diamonds! According to Dr. Neil Fox, who’s developing a new prototype made out of carbon-14, a naturally-occurring radioisotope that’s in our atmosphere and is in all living things. It’s also a standard atomic power plant waste . As per Dr. Neil Fox – “So our research has really been about looking for ways to repurpose that material, so that it effectively can be recycled. And carbon-14 may be a particularly attractive one because it’s not really on the list of really nasty radioisotopes. It’s a fairly, friendly material to work with.” Fox’s team isolated Carbon-14 and synthesized a diamond out of it. In doing so, they created a radioactive diamond that could produce an electric current. Granted, it’s a small one – not enough to power your phone. But it is enough to power smoke detectors, emergency signs, IoT devices, sensors in jet engines or deep sea cables, and even e-readers. And it could power all of these things for many years , without having to get replaced .

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As for safety it's totally safe because we’re talking a few device which is formed of diamond. The radioactive part is actually diamond as well and all of the radiation, all of the power of the device is completely absorbed by the diamond structure around it. But perhaps one among the foremost impactful applications of this battery is for medical implants. Today, they largely believe lithium ion batteries, but those have limitations. So, today’s nuclear batteries might not be what scientists imagined back in the 1950s, but a nuclear diamond battery that could go inside you? Still pretty dang cool if you ask me.



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