A group of researchers at the University of Bristol, UK claim they have managed to turn radioactive graphite waste into efficient artificial “diamond batteries” that could generate electricity and with a lifespan of over 5,000 years. The amount of energy per battery is quite small, however they would be particularly useful for low-power applications, such as pacemakers, satellites and high-altitude drones.
This new diamond battery is one of the many new ideas coming up to provide clean electricity generation, and could inspire more scientists to look into clean energy research.
The researchers at the University of Bristol had gone through many ideas for efficient batteries before finally coming up with the diamond battery. Their first version was a “diamond battery” that used radioactive Nickel-63. This isotope has a half-life of about 100 years, which is still pretty impressive.
However, with further research, the scientists came up with the new diamond battery, which uses carbon-14, an isotope with a half-life of 5,730 years. Not only is this extraordinarily longer, it also gives us the opportunity to dispose of carbon-14 nuclear waste that has been left over since the 1940’s.
According to the “Ideas to change the world” lecture posted by the University: “Since the 1940’s, the UK has run many nuclear reactors for research, military purposes and electricity generation.”
“These reactors all used uranium as fuel, housed inside of a core made out of graphite blocks. These blocks enable a controllable chain reaction, which provides a constant source of heat. This heat is then used to turn water into steam, which in turn drives turbines to produce electricity.”
However, with the continuous exposure of these carbon-14 graphite blocks, in turn makes them radioactive themselves. “The waste must then be safely stored and contained. We then simply have to wait for it to stop being radioactive. However, this takes thousands to millions of years,” they explained.
Many of these blocks now account for 95,000 tons of carbon-14 radioactive waste, which the UK has had a huge safety and financial obligation to store safely. Now with the discovery of turning these large amounts of carbon-14 radioactive waste into efficient electricity-producing batteries, this problem has now been turned into a great asset. This method is also much cleaner than using them to create nuclear power.
One of the researchers Neil Fox, explained: “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.”
Tom Scott, Professor in Materials in the University of Bristol’s Interface Analysis Centre says: “There are no moving parts involved, no emissions generated, 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.”