Nuclear waste takes thousands of years to decay. But that long-lived radioactivity could be exactly what makes these nuclear waste diamond batteries last for millennia.

Researchers at the University of Bristol have used graphite, the waste product of nuclear reactors, to develop a man-made diamond which produces electricity when placed in close proximity to a radioactive source. Although these batteries produce only a small amount of current, they offer an incredibly long battery life of thousands of years.

 

Making Use of Nuclear Waste

Nuclear reactors need graphite blocks to control heat flow and nuclear reactions. When exposed to radioactive uranium rods, the graphite blocks gradually become radioactive, as well. When a nuclear plant gets decommissioned, graphite blocks are one of the main radioactive waste products which need to be handled.

 

 

Carbon-14 is the radioactive version of carbon which is found at the surface of graphite blocks. The radiation of this carbon isotope cannot penetrate even a few centimeters of air, but it is not still safe to allow into the environment. The UK currently has almost 95,000 tonnes of radioactive graphite blocks. Researchers believe that, by extracting carbon-14, the majority of the graphite’s radioactive material can be removed. As a result, the cost and danger of storing graphite would be significantly reduced.

Researchers have found a method to reuse these graphite blocks to generate electricity out of the radioactive waste. First, they heat the graphite blocks and turn them into a gas. Then, the radioactive gas is compressed to grow a diamond.

 

 

The beta particles emitted by the radioactive material interact with the crystal lattice and throw off electrons.

The result? A radioactive diamond that can generate electricity for thousands of years.

To prove the feasibility of the technique, the research team has designed a prototype nuclear battery using a nickel isotope, nickel-63, as the radioactive source. However, they are planning to use carbon-14 in their future designs.

 

No Emissions, No Maintenance!

Unlike many conventional methods of producing electricity which rely on moving a magnet inside a coil of wires, the nuclear-powered batteries have no moving parts and the electricity is generated by simply placing the man-made diamond in close proximity to a radioactive source.

To shield the radioactive diamonds and make them safe to handle, a non-radioactive diamond coating is also grown. Dr. Neil Fox from Bristol's School of Chemistry explains that these nuclear batteries have no radioactive threats to the user. He notes that carbon-14 has short-range radiation which can be completely confined within the world’s hardest material: diamond. This non-radioactive diamond coating means that someone in close proximity to a nuclear battery would receive as much radiation as they would sitting next to a banana!

According to Professor Tom Scott of the university's Interface Analysis Centre, the nuclear batteries not only have negligible emissions but they also do not require any maintenance. This fact alone means that nuclear diamonds could be used in areas that are dangerous—or downright impossible—for maintenance workers to reach.

 

Potential Applications of a Diamond Battery

The bad news is that the produced current is not high enough to power a smartphone. However, the long battery life makes the technology appealing especially for applications where it is not easy or even possible to recharge the battery or replace it with a new one. The longevity of these batteries, which is connected to the half-life of the nuclear waste's radiation, can be crucially important in applications such as designing pacemakers, satellites, spacecraft, and high-altitude drones.

Researchers estimate that nuclear batteries based on carbon-14 will generate above 50% of their maximum power for as long as 5,730 years –– equal to the whole time the human civilization has existed. Hence, with this technology, it would be possible to power interstellar probes long after they lose solar power.

 

Lithium-Ion, Nuclear Battery, or Another Alternative?

Unfortunately, over the last few years, the battery industry has been cruel to many promising solutions. Researchers in this field need not only to solve many technical problems but also take the technology into the commercial realm. This is not at all easy because even a small battery manufacturer needs to invest nearly $500 million. In fact, according to MIT's Technology Review, one of the main reasons that new battery technologies do not get commercialized is the lack of funding and focus.

Many manufacturers prefer to rely on the incremental improvement of lithium-ion batteries—which has been exceedingly slow, despite some recent, promising research into increased Li-ion capacity—rather than accept the initial huge investment of a new battery which would offer a dramatic improvement over conventional batteries. In October 2015, Lux Research published a report which predicted the lithium-ion battery as the main choice of energy storage for the years ahead.

The nuclear-powered batteries can simultaneously solve a few of today’s serious problems such as nuclear waste disposal, clean electricity generation, and battery life. However, is there a clear path to seeing this technology commercialized? We face some serious questions: Is it economical to convert nuclear wastes into diamond batteries? Or are there only some particular applications that these batteries really lend themselves to?

 

The details of this technology were discussed at the Cabot Institute's sold­out annual lecture––"Ideas to change the world"–– in November.

For more information, check out the University of Bristol's friendly, animated video explaining the technology below:

 


Comments

11 Comments


  • Paxus Calta-Star 2016-12-30

    Diamond nuclear batteries, what a break through.  And they use nuclear waste, helping to solve that problem like breeder reactors do.  Except this technology has been highly elusive with the US, Uk, France, Germany and most recently Japan giving up their prototype programs.  And perhaps it will be too cheap to meter, as soon as they figure out how to make cheap diamonds.

    The point here is this article reads like a press release from the manufacturer.  Perhaps industry press finds no need for balanced reporting.  But as we have found repeatedly with nuclear technologies, they are not inexpensive, they are not on time, they have huge unresolved waste problems and the PR people keep on lying about them and continue to be able to successfully sell them.  Perhaps to people like the readers of All About Circuits.

  • Steve Arar 2016-12-30

    Thanks for the comment.
    I absolutely agree with you. As mentioned in the article “Researchers in this field need not only to solve many technical problems but also take the technology into the commercial realm. This is not at all easy”. and “We face some serious questions: Is it economical to convert nuclear wastes into diamond batteries? Or are there only some particular applications that these batteries really lend themselves to?”

  • sensacell 2017-01-01

    I also find that the editorial content here is rarely aligned with the theme of the rest of the website.
    Breathless techno-hype has no place on a site dedicated to real practical science and engineering.

     

  • Dsl145 2017-01-13

    “The bad news is that the produced current is not high enough to power a smartphone”; what is the power output of the diamonds (per what size of diamond?). Is it a technology that can be scaled up to be able to power any larger/long term devices?

    eg. Can we build a ‘diamond’ power plant that can run maybe a few houses… but for thousands of years?

  • David Gould 2017-01-13

    Well that’s the negative terminals of the battery dealt with .

    Here’s the positive one.
    As Kid in the 1950’s I used to read the Eagle boy’s mag where Dan Dare actually dared and with his mate Digby used to travel around the galaxy in a spacecraft . to different celestial places , met new life forms & have all manner of interesting & intriguing devices such as a watch he could talk to to contact someone elsewhere . Now 60 years later that idea has been further explored & developed . The USA put men on the moon , we have wearable watch type communication devices .

    So time is the overriding factor , money is just a portable form of something that recognises someones time has been taken to do something . OK ...it’s also variable in value as well .

      What ever you do,  don’t dismiss research into anything .
    Like Edison discovered , he had 10 ,000 ways of not making a light bulb .
    So it will be with new battery forms & much of anything else that is /was invented by humans .
    Imagine someone sneezing whilst crunching away at the computer covering the keyboard in slimy snot & thinks why can’t the battery electrolyte be like that & it works well if not better than those in common use at the time .  ..  Works out that a new form of battery safety is discovered , is eventually improved on .. Think Jelly lead acid battery’s here .

    There is some posh named rule for what happens , as the number of people researching a technology increases the chances of advancement grows tremendously addor multiply to that the ” graphene ” moments & it won’t be long before things start to evolve to better things .

    I’m 66 yrs old it’s treasonable to think of new more effective advancements in using the radioactive diamond technology for batteries over the next 12 years before I pop my clogs as it only just been born ........ it has a life time to run .

    • David Gould 2017-01-13

      OK the last line is an amusing typo for those vultures who choose to feed upon .

      It should have read ” I’m 66 yrs old, it’s reasonable to think of new more effective advancements ” etc. etc .

  • tonyr1084 2017-01-13

    Interesting.  I wouldn’t have to change the batteries in my clock for a very long time.  I just wish they’d have said how BIG a battery needs to be just to produce 10 mA.

  • PaulEngineer 2017-01-13

    Good to know that, but how they enclose the radioactive diamond, to a none one? its impossible!!! Or it is? because I know that the diamond is not so easy to cut, or form it! I… I don’t know what to say! good job!

  • Yezok 2017-01-13

    HMM, DI LITHIUM CRYSTALS V0.01 Could it be wonder what would happen if they were to add some vaporised lithium gas to the mix before they grow the diamonds

    • aries1470 2017-01-14

      Shh… you’re giving them to many ideas. The “seed” / “cernal” starts out as carbon-14, then plain carbon for coating to limit the radioactivity, then they will experiment with other noble gases and vapour deposition and will be able to oncreace the current and size and it will still work after an emp strike too….
      There are many ways of increasing the power.
      There there are other materials to use.

      Bow since it is a “crystal”, it most likely follow the piezo principles, but hey, I know nothing, I say nothing, I see nothing, as these “energy” devices can be used as energy packs with further development for laser based energy weapons. They have a continuous output of current and have issues with burst drains.

      Okay, I’ll wake up now and no pne knows what I just typed.
      Thank you.

  • kevinkerr 2017-01-14

    Carbon-14 emits relatively low energy beta radiation (0.14M). Whilst ok for reactors that use graphite as a moderator. It won’t be suitable for other radioacive waste which includes fission products which emit much higher energy betas as well as alphas and gamma. The later in particular would require significant shielding so your battery producing microamps(?) is now surrounded by inches of lead and weighs as much as a car lead acid battery, Progress?