A new technology allows batteries to be created from nuclear waste.
A team of chemists and physicists from the University of Bristol have developed a new technology which may provide a solution for what we can do with nuclear waste. They have developed a synthetic diamond which, when exposed to radioactivity, generates a small electrical current. The innovative new technology was presented at the Cabot Institute’s sold-out annual lecture “Ideas to change the world” on Friday, 25 November.
Almost every form of energy generation in existence involves a magnet passing through a wire loop to generate electricity. This is what turbines accomplish in nuclear plants, hydroelectric dams and even in fossil fuel plants like gas or coal power plants. This new technology stands out because it is able to generate a charge simply by being close to a radioactive source.
“There are no moving parts involved, no emissions generated and no maintenance required, just direct electricity generation,” said Tom Scott, Professor in Materials in the University’s Interface Analysis Centre and a member of the Cabot Institute. “By encapsulating radioactive material inside diamonds, we turn a long-term problem of nuclear waste into a nuclear-powered battery and a long-term supply of clean energy.”
The team behind the discovery have created a prototype battery using Nickel-63 as its radioactive source. They are now working to improve the efficiency of their design by using Carbon-14, an isotope of carbon well known for its use in radiocarbon dating. Carbon-14 is produced on the surface of graphite blocks used to moderate the reaction in nuclear power plants. Research at Bristol has shown that the majority of the radioactive material on the blocks is concentrated on the surface, making it possible to remove and repurpose for use in a diamond battery.
In the UK, nearly 95,000 tons of radioactive graphite blocks are in radioactive storage, and this discovery could go a long way to reducing the difficulty in storing the material. Once the material is inside a diamond, it’s harmless, as Dr. Neil Fox explains: “Carbon-14 was chosen as a source material because it emits a short-range radiation, which is quickly absorbed by any solid material. This would make it dangerous to ingest or touch with your naked skin, but safely held within diamond, no short-range radiation can escape. In fact, diamond is the hardest substance known to man, there is literally nothing we could use that could offer more protection.”
While the batteries produce too little electricity to be under serious consideration for replacing conventional lithium batteries, their long lifespan makes them ideal for electronics which require a small current for extended time periods, such as in space craft or pacemakers. A carbon-14 based battery would continually produce electricity for 5,730 years before the isotope reached it’s half-life, and thus lost half of it’s power generating capabilities.