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What are Nuclear Batteries?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 16, 2024
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Nuclear batteries run off of the continuous radioactive decay of certain elements. These incredibly long-lasting batteries are still in the theoretical and developmental stage of existence, but they promise to provide clean, safe, almost endless energy. They have been designed for personal use as well as for civil engineering, aeronautics, and medical treatments.

The almost magical production of electricity in nuclear batteries is made possible by the process of betavoltaics. Through this technology, the electrons that radioactive isotopes regularly lose due to decay can be harnessed and directed into a stream of electricity. A semiconductor, possibly made from silicon, catches the flying electrons and directs them into a steady power source. Even a small amount of radioactive material will provide a charge for a very long time before it expires.

Some people want to develop nuclear batteries to solve the pesky problem of your cell phone running out of juice just as you were writing down an important address. But other researchers see the potential for nuclear batteries to power things in situations where a battery really needs to last a long time because there is no way to replace it. They suggest applications such as pacemakers or other implants, detectors to be dropped in the bottom of an ocean or sealed deep within a bridge. Perhaps interstellar flights could be powered by a series of batteries each lasting several decades.

Don't let yourself be put off by the name "nuclear" batteries. You would not be coming in contact with a miniaturized nuclear reactor. In fact, once engineered to everyone's satisfaction, they could be much safer than ordinary chemical batteries. The radioactive elements are fairly rare, distributed as they are across a semiconductor, and would be very well insulated. Unlike alkaline batteries, these wouldn't corrode.

Scientists are still working out the kinks in nuclear batteries before they can be widely implemented. Of course, they have long theorized that radioactive decay could provide a low-cost source of energy, but there are many problems with getting a current that is strong and dependable enough. One of the latest developments is to use silicon wafers with a large surface area, accomplished with texturing that puts pits and valleys across the thin semiconductor. This seems to boost the usable electrical output, as it catches more electrons rather than letting the radioactive isotope re-absorb them.

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Discussion Comments
By sriram — On Apr 28, 2011

incredibly safe, and unbelievably long and efficient, it is these innovations that can determine the future of our planet. unlike some people who say more investment in nuclear field rather than wind and solar, i would say that every country's investment in the energy sector should be less and all the major areas of renewable and nuclear energy needs to be equally developed and invested upon.

By anon152030 — On Feb 12, 2011

We should develop these products as soon as possible. Millions are being wasted on solar and wind. They sound very efficient.

By ValleyFiah — On Jun 26, 2010

@ Babalaas- The United States intelligence community considers some of the older radioisotope thermal electric devices that you mentioned a threat. The soviets used many of these batteries throughout their satellite nations to power unmanned navigation and intelligence posts.

Many of the records that tell exactly where these RTGs are located were lost or destroyed after the USSR dissolved. They are still operational to this day, and pose a threat as a potential source of radioactive material for dirty bombs.

Since the Russian government does not know exactly how many of these still exist and where they are, they have no way to know if they have fallen into the wrong hands. This is a potential source for untraceable radioactive material sold on the black market.

RTGs used n satellites also pose a danger to people. If the launch of a satellite fails, there is the possibility that the explosion will vaporize the radioactive isotopes in the atmosphere. In fact, a satellite failed to launch in 1996 and ejected a graphite canister containing 200 grams of Plutonium 238 into the Chilean mountains. Plutonium 238 is more than 250 times as radioactive as plutonium 239, which is the primary isotope used in nuclear warheads. Luckily, the graphite and iridium box is supposed to hold for almost 900 years.

By Babalaas — On Jun 26, 2010

@ Fiorite- The nuclear battery that you speak about is very small. Consumers would use them to power micro and nanoelectric devices. The article is talking about this type of nuclear battery.

A fully functional nuclear battery has been in use since the early sixties. Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) are used on deep space satellites, arctic bases and military installments, remote lighthouses, and any other type of place where there is a need for electricity, but no source of fuel, maintenance personnel, or solar radiation.

RTGs work by generating heat in the radioactive core that has metal fins attached to it. The metal fins in the generator are thermocouples (two different semiconductors joined together) which produce electricity through the Seebeck effect. The Seebeck effect, as the article stated, is the creation of voltage by the temperature difference of the thermocouple.

By Fiorite — On Jun 26, 2010

At the end of 2009, a scientist from the University of Missouri developed a nuclear battery that has the potential to produce six times the energy of a chemical battery. The solid latticed semiconductor that the article speaks about poses a challenge that has been difficult for scientists to overcome until now.

Some of the radiation from the radioactive isotopes actually causes damage to the lattices of the solid semiconductor material. To overcome this, the scientist uses a liquid semiconductor in the battery. This makes the battery operate more efficiently. The scientist and his team are applying for patents on the technology, hoping to produce a nuclear battery that can be commercially viable.

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