Imagine carrying around a tiny nuclear reactor in the form of a cell phone. Imagine driving a nuclear-powered car or doing your daily work on a nuclear-powered laptop computer. Although that is not what a California company known as NDB is proposing, what they are working on is not all that different in principle. NDB is developing batteries powered by nuclear waste.
Their goal is to eventually come up with a long-life battery that would mitigate the need for an endless supply of single-use alkaline batteries or rechargeable lithium-ion, NiCad, or NiHM alternatives. Their nuclear batteries would still be single use, but they would last for years.
Creating a Nuclear Reaction
NDB’s idea is to generate a small nuclear reaction inside a battery cell. Again, it is not at the same level as a nuclear power plant or nuclear submarine, but the principle is much the same. They propose to use nuclear waste recovered from decommissioned power plants to make radioactive diamonds. The diamonds would provide the foundation for long life batteries.
As the thinking goes, the carbon-14 in the man-made diamond would gradually decay inside the battery case. In doing so, electrons within the diamond would be released and knocked around, generating electrical current. Depending on the size and design of the battery, a typical cell could last anywhere from 12 to 5,000 years.
Wired contributor Alex Lee explained in a September 2020 piece that the concept isn’t new. He cited both research dating back to the turn of the 20th century and betavoltaic batteries first introduced in the 1970s. The batteries were once used in small electronic devices, like pacemakers, because of the long life. They were eventually phased out in favor of lithium-ion batteries.
The Power Output Question
Betavoltaic batteries proved workable in both principle and practice. However, they were severely limited by low voltage output. An expert interviewed by Lee explained that even the best betavoltaic battery only puts off tens of microwatts. That is not enough to power anything larger than an electronic nano sensor. Forget about batteries capable of powering cell phones and computers.
A betavoltaic battery capable of replacing a lithium-ion cell phone battery would be as large as a tub of margarine and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make. So while it could be done, building such batteries is commercially impractical.
What does NDB propose to do differently? Take advantage of both the alpha and beta decay within the previously mentioned man-made diamonds. Betavoltaic batteries are limited to beta decay only.
Scaling up the Reaction
NDB officials say they can scale up the reaction inside a diamond battery by utilizing both states of decay. Though short on specifics, they say they are fully confident they will eventually be able to manufacture batteries for everything from hand-held electronics to electric vehicles. As for how long it will take to get there, no one is saying.
Let us assume that NDB does work it out. Does that mean the end of the batteries we all know and love? Not likely, says Salt Lake City’s Pale Blue Earth. The Utah maker of state-of-the-art USB rechargeable batteries says lithium-ion has too many practical applications to eliminate it with a single diamond battery.
Pale Blue Earth points to the fact that disposable alkaline batteries still sell by the billions despite lithium-ion offering better technology at a lower cost. If more recent technologies have been unsuccessful in bringing about the end of alkaline disposables, there doesn’t seem to be much chance that a diamond battery made from nuclear waste will kill lithium-ion.