As it's said, a diamond lasts forever. So why not transform that diamond into a super long-lasting battery?
That's the idea behind a new technique developed by University of Bristol researchers that transforms nuclear waste into diamond form. These radioactive diamonds are capable of generating their own electrical current, and since the half-life of their radioactive material lasts for thousands of years, so does the power source.
When you think of radioactive diamonds, you're probably more likely to imagine some sort of elaborate Cold War assassination plot from a James Bond movie than you are to think of a battery. At the very least, it sounds like an extremely pricey method for the rich and famous to keep their smartphones charged. But the technique has a less-nefarious, less-highfalutin application too: transforming leftover nuclear waste into clean energy.
“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,” explained Tom Scott, Professor in Materials at the University of Bristol, in a press release.
Here's the gist of it. For many years, nuclear reactors in the U.K. were encased in graphite blocks to help sustain their nuclear reactions. Graphite, like a diamond, is made of carbon, but because of prolonged exposure to radioactivity, the graphite blocks used at nuclear sites also became radioactive. Specifically, their carbon transformed into an unstable isotope, carbon-14. Because carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years, all of that graphite must be safely stored for a very long time.
It's a far better idea to make use of all that carbon rather than just store it away. So researchers transformed the carbon-14 into diamond form and then encased it with an outer layer of non-radioactive diamond. Because diamond is the hardest substance known, this outer layer keeps the radioactivity from escaping and causing harm. Meanwhile, that inner radioactivity produces a constant charge until it decays, which is not for thousands of years.
These diamond batteries won't produce a large charge; one gram of the stuff would deliver around 15 joules per day, less than an alkaline AA battery. The perk, though, is in how long lasting they are.
“We envision these batteries to be used in situations where it is not feasible to charge or replace conventional batteries. Obvious applications would be in low-power electrical devices where long life of the energy source is needed, such as pacemakers, satellites, high-altitude drones or even spacecraft," said Scott.
While it might make you uneasy to consider that a radioactive diamond is powering the pacemaker in your chest, the batteries certainly have value for powering devices and sensors during long-distance space flights.
The cost of these batteries went conveniently unmentioned by researchers in their press release. Suffice it to say, they're probably not cheap. But space agencies have budgets that everyday consumers do not. Researchers are asking the public, though, to weigh in on ways that diamond batteries might be applicable.
“There are so many possible uses that we’re asking the public to come up with suggestions of how they would utilize this technology by using #diamondbattery,” said Scott.
You can view an informational animation about the technology here: