Those who predicted the future of technology in the 1950s never even conceived of the internet. The prevailing network of scientific thought at that time constrained logical projections of anything so illogical as a digitally interconnected world. The nuclear battery, unveiled at the University of Bristol’s recent Ideas to Change the World lecture, may be a similar development in that it appears to have come out of nowhere and challenged many traditional views on electricity generation.
In short, chemists and physicists at the University of Bristol have been able to grow a small diamond from nuclear waste which, when placed in a radioactive field, will generate low voltage electricity. The details are more complex but more interesting.
Nuclear reactors contain graphite rods which control the rate of a nuclear reaction by absorbing some of the radiation that is produced. In so doing, the rods themselves become radioactive and, eventually, become nuclear waste and an environmental problem. There’s a lot of this waste around. The UK, for example, has produced 95,000 tons of radioactive graphite waste.
Within this radioactive graphite is the radioactive form of carbon known as carbon-14. The scientists at the University of Bristol discovered that most of this carbon-14 was concentrated on the outside of the graphite rods and that it could be converted to a gas by heating. The gas was, subsequently, captured and converted to small diamonds at low pressures and high temperatures. These diamonds will produce an electric current when placed in a radioactive field. However, since these diamonds are already radioactive from the carbon-14, they will inherently produce their own low voltage current. They are self-contained electricity producers or batteries.
Since they produce radiation, however, the scientists placed an additional, non-radioactive diamond coating over the radioactive diamonds to stop any radiation leakage that may occur. This process increased its productivity and made it “nearly 100% efficient”. The amount of radioactivity that the device produced was “less than what a single banana emits”. The nuclear batteries so produced are not perpetual motion machines but, in terms of the human lifespan, they may as well be. They do decay like all radioactive substances, but would still have half of their power in 5,000 years. So if you put one in your device today, it would still have half its power in the year 7000, which is probably longer than your current battery could go.
Here’s a video that sums up the above information.
A prototype of the battery was made using nickel-63 as the radiation source. The team’s plan, however, is to use carbon-14 derived from nuclear waste. Carbon-14 would not only be more effective in electricity generation but using it would lower the radioactivity level of the nuclear waste from which it is produced, thus helping to solve a sticky environmental problem. It looks like a win-win situation for all involved.
The problem I have with the battery is the lack of technical details given about it. I have found no professional papers written on the findings of the group. For now, all we know is that the battery will produce low-power, long-lasting batteries. These batteries, in their current form, will produce far less power than a common AA battery, so would have limited use.
There are a number of questions I would like answered. How exactly does radiation stimulate the production of electricity in these batteries? How is the charge channeled to power a device? What are the upper limits, if any, of these batteries? How much power can they potentially generate? Does this depend on the size of the diamond or the amount of radiation stimulating it? Can these batteries be linked or combined to produce more power output?
The most technical information I could find was in an article published in Electronics Weekly. It is the first mention I’ve seen of a metal contact on the diamond being used to collect the electrons generated within the diamond. Here are some other specifications given in the article. Perhaps they will help those less electronically challenged than I am to decipher the viability of this battery.
Diamond beta battery at a glance
voltage – 2V estimated (Ni-63 1.9V measured)
energy – 2.7TJ over first 5,730 years
prototype size – 10 x 10 x 0.5mm (plus electrodes)
temperature – physically stable at 750°C
If the technical details can be ironed out and more powerful batteries can be created they could have a paradigm shifting impact. Even if AA battery power can be achieved, you can imagine the impact. Think of all the devices you use that require such batteries, from toothbrushes, to various remote controllers, to cameras, and think about never worrying about buying or recharging batteries again. Of course, the collateral casualties would include those traditional battery manufacturers that fail to adopt the new technology, but such casualties go hand-in-hand with every technological advance.
On a grander scale, imagine if nuclear batteries could some day power cars and even houses. What impact would that have on individual industries, whole economic sectors, and even entire nations? Hydrocarbon-based power would be replaced. But what need would we also have for solar or wind power? Actually, what need would we have for electric companies? Some industries would die before they are born, like stations designed to recharge electric car batteries. Such a monumental development will produce an unstable time for businesses and nations and the political ramifications could take some nasty turns.
That’s the problem with an unforeseen paradigm shift. It produces paradigm shifts in seemingly unrelated economic and social areas. No one in the 1980s could foresee that the linking of computer nodes in a network would have such an impact on newspapers, the postal service, landline phones, the record and movie industry, romance, and international politics. The situation could be the same with the nuclear battery. At this moment, this scientific advance might seem to be nothing more than an amusing sidelight. However, if it leads to developments like those discussed above, it could have dramatic implications to everyone on the planet. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.