Scientists have developed a way to create diamond-based batteries from radioactive waste, capable of generating electricity for longer than the entire length of human civilization. Really.
A team from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom has made the breakthrough that could allow for portable devices that would survive with one set of batteries for an unimaginable length of time.
The researchers realized that they could extract the radioactive carbon-14 molecules from the graphite blocks used in nuclear reactors, the part of a plant where the nuclear reactions take place to generate electricity. These graphite blocks are used to ensure the stability of the reactor, but as they’re used in the crucial area where reactions take place, dangerous carbon-14 molecules collect on their surface. Researchers found that the radioactive molecules were close enough to the surface that they could be extracted from the block. The radioactive molecules can then be used to create diamonds, which are also made of carbon. The graphite blocks, with less radioactive elements, are then safer to store.
The diamond’s unique molecular structure means escaping beta particles (a special kind of particle emitted from radioactive atoms) emit electrons and generate electricity. A second non-radioactive diamond shield ensures the radioactivity is contained. The shield absorbs the carbon-14 radiation, as the type of radiation given off by the molecule is particularly short range and will not penetrate the diamond enclosure.
The University of Bristol also released this tidy video explaining the process:
“Diamond is the hardest substance known to man, there is literally nothing we could use that could offer more protection,” Neil Fox from the university’s chemistry school said in a report published Monday. The researchers have built a prototype using nickel-63, another radioactive molecule, but their upcoming carbon-14 prototype will work more efficiently. The new prototype is estimated to still generate 50 percent of its electricity in 5,730 years, about the current length of human civilization.
Tom Scott, a professor at the university, is inviting members of the public to voice their opinions on social media about what applications the battery would be useful for. Scott himself said that the technology would be ideal for low-power scenarios, like satellites, drones, or spacecraft.
Others foresee simple, practical applications for hard-to-reach devices.
There’s also the emergency benefits, where mission-critical equipment will become more reliable with a permanent stream of power.
Although the batteries are designed with low-power usage in mind, the possibilities for hyper-connected devices are endless. A major issue with Internet of Things-powered home appliances is that they require a constant stream of power to transmit over wireless frequencies. Being able to put a connected device anywhere around the house would mean far greater options for hardware makers, currently constrained by practical considerations. The question is, will the general public feel safe placing radioactive diamonds around their house?
Photos via Flickr / @CorySchmitz