Although it produces a huge amount of hazardous radioactive waste that is incredibly difficult to recycle and dispose of, nuclear energy is considered a pure source of energy, simply because there is zero carbon emissions. Now a group of scientists potentially come up with a solution to deal with nuclear waste, which could very much change the battery technology we know today.

Prototype of the Arkenlight diamond betavoltaic battery with carbon-14. Image Credit: University of Bristol

Back in 2016, a team of researchers, physicists and chemists from the University of Bristol began working on what became known as radioactive diamond batteries. The invention they came up with was presented as a beta-electric device, which means it works from the beta decay of nuclear waste.

Beta decay is a type of radioactive decay that occurs when the nucleus of an atom has an excess of particles and releases some of them to obtain a more stable ratio of protons and neutrons. It produces a kind of ionizing radiation called beta radiation, which includes many high-speed and high-energy electrons or positrons known as beta particles.

A typical beta-electric element consists of thin layers of radioactive material placed between semiconductors. As nuclear material decays, it releases beta particles that knock out electrons in the semiconductor, creating an electric current. However, the power density of a radioactive source is lower the farther it is from the semiconductor. This means that nuclear batteries are much less efficient than other types of batteries. Polycrystalline diamond (PCD) comes to the rescue.

Radioactive batteries are made using a process called chemical vapor deposition, which is widely used to make artificial diamonds. The researchers modified the process of growing radioactive diamonds using radioactive methane containing the radioactive isotope Carbon-14, which is on the irradiated graphite blocks of the reactor. These diamonds can act both as a radioactive source and as a semiconductor.

When exposed to beta radiation you get a long-term battery that doesn’t need to be charged. The nuclear waste that is in its interior replenishes it over and over again, allowing it to be recharged for centuries, with very little or no measurable degradation over hundreds of years. Theoretically, one battery can be used for over a thousand years without the need to replace or recharge.

Scientists turn nuclear waste into

At the time of writing, the battery is a working prototype that cannot be used in conventional applications such as laptops or mobile phones. Because the power it provides is very small, its use is limited to small devices that do not consume too much energy. To make it feasible on a large commercial scale, researchers are working on technology that will allow them to develop and support inventions.

Arkenlight, an English company involved in the commercialization of Bristol’s radioactive diamond battery, plans to launch its first product, a microbattery for pacemakers and sensors, in late 2023.

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