The word nuclear leaves us with more questions than answers, so it was only logical for people to question the development of a “Nuclear Diamond Battery.” You too might be wondering: how is it nuclear? Is it safe? Is it expensive? What can it actually power?
We need to dig deeper to answer not just these questions but to also understand how nuclear batteries might just be the future of portable energy.
To begin with, nuclear power plants employ nuclear fission to generate electricity. This process involves splitting radioactive uranium atoms by bombarding neutrons, the result of which is an enormous amount of heat. This heat is then used to vaporize water into steam to turn a turbine. The turbine is in turn coupled to a generator which produces electricity. All the power plants work on the same principle; the only difference is the mode of heat production. Other methods produce far less heat compared to nuclear fission (8 kWh from 1 kg of coal, 12 kWh from 1 kg of mineral oil, 24,000,000 kWh from 1Kg of U-235).
One of the major downsides of nuclear plants is the nuclear waste, which is a direct threat to every life form. This is because of the radiation or ionization radiation produced by the waste, transmitted in the form of waves or sub-atomic particles capable of damaging the DNA of not just humans, but every living thing that comes in contact with it. As of now, 31 countries have nuclear power stations, but only the US, Sweden, Finland, Sweden and a few more have permanent nuclear waste storage facility a.k.a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF).
The US has amassed 76,430 metric tonnes of nuclear waste over the last 40 odd years. There are no questions about the many harms of nuclear waste; however, the same waste also contains valuable radioactive isotopes that can have many practical applications. The problem is it’s quite difficult to identify valuable isotopes in the waste. Dumping off nuclear waste permanently in a safe way is of paramount importance, but so is storing it safely for reprocessing at a later time.
Therefore, when Britain’s Magnox Nuclear reactors were decommissioned in 2015 after over half a century of service, a team of physicists and chemists from the University of Bristol decided to work on the nuclear waste left by them. The waste contained 95,000 tonnes of graphite blocks used as moderators to control the nuclear fission process. Years and years of continuous bombardment of neutrons on the graphite blocks had transformed the inert carbon in the graphite to radioactive carbon-14 or c-14, classified as nuclear waste.
The team of scientists decided to remove carbon-14 from the graphite blocks and experiment on it. Their experiment was based on the fact that when a diamond is exposed to radiation it produces an electric current. Carbon-14’s low-yield beta particles have a very small penetration range (less than a few centimeters in air), and they can absorb solid materials rapidly.
The half-life of c-14 is about 5,730 years. The team of scientists wanted to separate carbon-14 from graphite rods and utilize it as a radiation source for diamonds to generate electricity. This experiment presented the possibility of a sustainable battery with no moving parts, emissions, or the need for maintenance. The batteries would still be generating electricity at half their capacity even after 5730 years.
During the process, they discovered that c-14 was not distributed evenly over the graphite blocks. There were patches of high concentration near to the fuel rods and on the surface. They decided to heat the blocks to drive the c-14 gas out from the high-concentration ends. This c-14 gas was then collected and morphed into synthetic diamonds under high temperature and pressure.
High pressure and temperature have no effect on radioactivity. The beta particles from the c-14 threw off the electrons present in the diamond’s crystal lattice, giving way to the flow of electrons and hence the generation of electricity. Obviously, diamonds are radioactive themselves as they are morphed from c-14. An additional protective, non-radioactive coating is applied to the diamonds to shield the radioactivity from escaping.
The batteries are completely safe to use as they are enclosed in a diamond, which is the hardest known material on earth. If we compare an alkaline AA battery to a diamond beta-battery, it appears that the alkaline battery has a good storage rating, but a diamond beta-battery can consistently produce electricity for a longer period. A 20-gram alkaline battery has the energy density storage rating of 700Joules/gram and can run out of energy within 24 hours of continuous use, while a diamond battery of 1 gram c-14 can generate 15 joules per day for 5730 years, which gives it a rating of 2.7 TeraJoules.
There is no doubt that the electricity produced is sufficient to power a Smartphone, but it can also be used to power pacemakers, artificial pancreas, timing devices, high-altitude drones, or even satellites and space crafts.
A team of scientists had previously created a prototype battery from nickel-63’s unstable isotope with a half-life of just 100 years, under the lead of a Geochemist Tom Scott, a member of the Cabot Institute and a Professor of Materials at the University of Bristol’s Interface Analysis Center. They presented their idea and its astonishing results at the “Ideas to change the world” conference on November 25, 2016, and the response from scientific communities and market was visibly tremendous.
A Global Nuclear Battery Market 2017 Report was recently published by MRS Research and distributed by SBWire. It provides an overview of the nuclear battery market segmentation up to second or third level based on application, technology, end-users, and geographic locations. The report features historical and statistical data on regional and global markets from the standpoint of both volume and value. All the data was collected with the help of industry professionals, members and analysts, which was rigorously analyzed by quantitative and qualitative techniques. It also features information about various factors (demand, supply, forecast trends, sales, production, industry policy, and applications) that influence market dynamics (segmentation and trends). This report is equally useful for manufacturers, consumers and investors.