A cellphone power source that lasts nine years. An auto-battery pack that lasts nearly a century.
A pacemaker that is powered to last 28,000 years.
These surreal claims are being made by a California-based battery company that says successful early test results recently competed on a nano-diamond battery brings them closer to realizing such claims.
The key to their revolutionary batteries is radioactive nuclear waste. There are massive quantities of leftover nuclear waste from nuclear plant facilities. Such waste is extremely toxic, lasts thousands of years and poses a challenge when it comes to disposing of it (burying and encasing it) safely.
The company, NDB, says it can safely utilize this waste to generate power in its nano diamond batteries.
It can achieve this by processing graphite nuclear waste into a pure form and then converting it into diamonds. As the waste product enveloped by the diamond decays, it interacts with the carbon to generate a small electric current.
Depending on the power drain, the battery, which never needs recharging, would last for a user’s lifetime, and beyond.
It could be used for common mobile devices, medical products, satellites and could provide energy in hard-to-reach locations or remote areas where routine maintenance would be difficult.
The company has not yet produced a prototype, but says it has proof of concept. The company sees virtually unlimited applications of NDBs.
“Think of it in an iPhone,” NDB’s chief strategy officer Neel Naicker says. “With the same size battery, it would charge your battery from zero to full, five times an hour. Imagine that.
Imagine a world where you wouldn’t have to charge your battery at all for the day. Now imagine for the week, for the month… How about for decades? That’s what we’re able to do with this technology.”
The basic principle behind the concept is not actually new. As NDB’s chief operating officer Mohammed Irfan explained: “Using radioisotopes as a source for energy is not new.
We have nuclear medicine, where patients are treated with controlled equipment, which has always given effective results.
Similarly, we have had nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers. Of course, that’s a completely different process, but it’s been able to successfully and safely deliver power and energy without safety issues.”
Some NDB claims have ben greeted with cautious skepticism in tech circles.
“NDB speaks of low- and high-power versions of the cell in development, but until we see some output figures the claims are still hazy, and until we see some proof, they’re just claims,” said Loz Blain, a tech writer at New Atlas.
Steven Novella of the publication NEUROLOGICA blog questions how the batteries will reach sufficient output to be as effective as NDB’s developers claim.
“This all sounds great,” Novella says, “but there is a critical factor left out… What is the power density of these devices?”
Specs from similar projects utilizing radioactive fuel, Novella suggests, show “the power density is extremely low, much lower than chemical batteries like lithium-ion.
The engineers from NDB admit their power density is about the same as other nuclear diamond technology.”
NDB says it will begin work on a prototype as soon as virus-related quarantines ease, and they hope to produce a working prototype in less than two years.
In the meantime, they believe they have found the ultimate solution to a longtime problem.
“We’ve taken something that’s really harmful to the environment, a problem, ” NDB’s Naicker says, “and created energy.”
Scientists have refined a technique to make diamond batteries using irradiated nuclear waste that could last thousands of years without needing to charge.
Diamond batteries made from nuclear waste could be used to power electronics on a “potentially near-infinite basis” without the need for a recharge.
A team of UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) scientists are collaborating with researchers at the University of Bristol to develop the technology, which makes use of irradiated graphite recovered from decommissioned nuclear reactors to generate power.
The miniature batteries would operate in a similar way to the photovoltaics used in solar panels, using the fast-moving electrons in the Carbon-14 isotope to create electrical charge in place of the photons found in sunlight.
Work underway to establish a production line for diamond batteries
The technology has already been demonstrated in practice on a small scale at the university, and now scientists at UKAEA’s Hydrogen-3 Advanced Technology facility (H3AT) are working on a pilot project to establish a production line for the batteries that would initially supply up to 20,000 devices per year.
Professor Tom Scott from the University of Bristol said: “It’s an extremely exciting project – we are aiming to be world leaders in diamond batteries.”
Battery innovation has become a key focus of scientific research in recent years, as demand grows for greater energy efficiency and low-carbon techniques to deliver clean power to support the energy transition.
While the power delivery of these diamond batteries is low compared to other versions, their sheer longevity could position them as key components of future electronics manufacturing.
Carbon-14 isotope used to develop diamond batteries
Earlier in the year, work began on removing radioactive waste products from the Berkeley nuclear power station in Gloucestershire, UK – a former reactor decommissioned in 1989.
It is hoped the irradiated material stored in concrete vaults eight meters below ground at the facility can be recycled for use in the diamond batteries, to create “ultra-long-lasting” power sources that have a range of potential applications from long-range space travel to computer chips or medical devices.
The 5730-year half-life of Carbon-14 means these batteries could provide electrical power for thousands of years without needing to be charged, while as little as 50kg is estimated to be enough to build millions of individual units.
The technique was first presented by the researchers in 2016, who revealed they had “grown a man-made diamond” that when placed into a radioactive field can generate a small electrical current.
University of Bristol’s Dr Neil Fox explained at the time: “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.”
Prof Scott added: “There are no moving parts involved, no emissions generated and no maintenance required, just direct electricity generation.
“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 ASPIRE Project, a collaboration between the University of Bristol and University of Oxford in the UK, has developed a diamond battery that can process nuclear waste and reduce disposal costs.
The project began in early-2017 with the aim of developing remotely located, extreme environment sensors to enable monitoring of nuclear waste packages in their interim and final storage locations.
The proposed solution was to use diamond batteries: advanced radio-voltaic diamond devices to harvest energy from radioactive decay to power small, portable units containing multiple sensors that pass data over wireless networks.
“By removing the Carbon-14 from irradiated graphite directly from the reactor, this would make the remaining waste products less radioactive and therefore easier to manage and dispose of,” Professor Tom Scott, lead researcher, told Nuclear Energy Insider.
“Cost estimates for disposing of the graphite waste are 46,000 pounds ($60,000) per cubic meter for Intermediate Level Waste [ILW] and 3,000 pounds ($4,000) per cubic meter for Low-Level Waste [LLW].
“Therefore, if the waste processing to remove the C14 reclassifies the waste as LLW, then any cost under 43,000 pounds ($56,000) per cubic meter will represent a saving to the UK taxpayer. Equally, if we can process the graphite so that it doesn’t require geological disposal then we can save substantially by building a smaller Geological Disposal Facility.”
These diamond batteries are made using a process called chemical vapour deposition (CVD) which is widely used for diamond manufacture and uses a mixed hydrogen and methane plasma to grow diamond films at very high temperatures.
Scientists at ASPIRE have modified the CVD process to enable growth of radioactive diamond, using a radioactive methane containing the radioactive isotope Carbon-14, found enriched on irradiated reactor graphite blocks.
The diamond is grown in a laboratory inside a sealed CVD system and the radioactive diamond is grown with non-radioactive diamond either side of it, either as a single crystal wafer or polycrystal wafer.
“The diamond battery is technically a beta-voltaic which is a cousin of the photovoltaic (or solar-cell) but converts beta-radiation instead of light to create electricity,” explains Professor Scott.
“We also have a gamma-voltaic device which can directly convert gamma and x-ray radiation into electricity. This presents the possibility of turning some of our very highly active radwaste into power sources without having to modify those packages.
All you’d need to do is place gamma-voltaic arrays around or near to the packages to soak up as much of the emitted radiation as possible; converting it to electricity.
“For the gamma-voltaic technology we may be able to achieve more significant power outputs, depending on the radiation levels we can expose them to. It would certainly be possible to add gamma-voltaic shrouds to a reactor core for direct nuclear electric conversion that could be in addition to the electricity derived from steam generation.”
The batteries are expected to produce at least 2V of energy. Based on the use of 1g of Carbon-14, it can deliver around 15J a day of energy for 5,730 years. A standard alkaline AA battery weighing about 20g has an energy storage rating of 700J/g. If operated continuously, this would run out in 24 hours.
Professor Scott says the technology is scalable to a point, but one major limitation is the amount of C14 diamond that can be manufactured, but that gamma-voltaic and one specific version of the beta-voltaic could commence commercial production within just three months.
“The actual cost of manufacture of the devices once a suitable feedstock gas is available is relatively small and so should be economically viable,” says Professor Scott.
“We’ve spent the last nine months doing detailed financial modelling and business case development and project that commercially available devices could be sold for between 2 and 20 pounds ($2.6 to $26) within a few years. If it proves possible on a commercial scale, a site like Berkeley would be ideal – we could harvest C-14 direct from the dormant reactor core and process it in a facility that is literally next door.”
More information: ndb.technology/