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Russian scientists achieve nuclear battery breakthrough

06/06/2018
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If you've ever had the battery unexpectedly go flat in your mobile phone or watch you'll understand how frustrating it can be. More importantly, current battery technology used in cardiac pacemakers means that invasive procedures are needed to replace depleted batteries. But these frustrations could be a thing of the past if a new nuclear battery technology becomes viable.

Russian researchers from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), the Technological Institute for Superhard and Novel Carbon Materials (TISNCM), and the National University of Science and Technology MISIS have optimised the design of a nuclear battery- generating power from the beta decay of nickel-63, a radioactive isotope.
Early indications are that the battery packs around 10 times more energy per gram than the specific energy of commercial chemical cells.
(Image via the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology).

Early indications are that this nuclear battery packs about 3,300 milliwatt-hours of energy per gram, which is more than in any other nuclear battery based on nickel-63, and 10 times more than the specific energy of commercial chemical cells.

Finding the right battery for the job

Ordinary batteries typically use so-called redox chemical reactions, producing high power density- that is, the ratio between the power of the generated current and the volume of the battery. However, ordinary batteries tend to discharge this large amount of power in a short amount of time. This makes them suitable for stand-alone items that require relatively high-power discharge, and where the batteries can easily be changed (e.g. torches, hand-held electronic devices).

For items where batteries cannot be easily changed (such as cardiac pacemakers) an alternative type of battery is required which can release energy slowly and consistently over years and even decades.

It’s in such applications that this new nuclear-powered battery could be used.

Nuclear-powered batteries are not new. They’ve been around since 1913, when Henry Moseley invented the first power generator based on radioactive decay. Fast-forward to 1953 and Paul Rappaport had proposed the use of semiconducting materials to convert the energy of beta decay into electricity. These batteries powered by beta decay came to be known as betavoltaics. Whilst betavoltaics have a long life-span- their power density remained low. They did find limited use in cardiac pacemakers, but were phased out in favour of cheaper lithium-ion batteries, despite the latter having shorter lifespans.

Fast forward again to today, and it looks like the team of Russian scientists could have found a solution, thus creating a nuclear battery with both high power density, and a long lifespan.

What’s the breakthrough?

To quote the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) directly:

“A research team led by Vladimir Blank, the director of TISNCM and chair of nanostructure physics and chemistry at MIPT, came up with a way of increasing the power density of a nuclear battery almost tenfold. The physicists developed and manufactured a beta voltaic battery using nickel-63 as the source of radiation and Schottky barrier-based diamond diodes for energy conversion. The prototype battery achieved an output power of about 1 microwatt, while the power density per cubic centimetre was 10 microwatts, which is enough for a modern artificial pacemaker. Nickel-63 has a half-life of 100 years, so the battery packs about 3,300 milliwatt-hours of power per 1 gram – 10 times more than electrochemical cells.”

Meeting the manufacturing challenge

The nuclear battery prototype consists of 200 diamond converters interlaid with nickel-63 and stable nickel foil layers (see image below).
The nuclear battery prototype consists of 200 diamond converters interlaid with nickel-63 and stable nickel foil layers.
(Image via the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology).

The challenge of manufacturing of this new battery technology lies in the fabrication of a large number of the diamond conversion cells with a complex internal structure. To meet this challenge, research from TISNCM and MIPT developed a unique technology for synthesizing thin diamond plates on a diamond substrate and splitting them off to mass-produce ultrathin converters.

From prototype to reality

The team intend to continue investigating ways to improve the battery design and options to scale-up production further. To quote MIPT again:

“The researchers are planning to continue their work on nuclear batteries. They have identified several lines of inquiry that should be pursued. Firstly, enriching nickel-63 in the radiation source would proportionally increase battery power. Secondly, developing a diamond p-i-n structure with a controlled doping profile would boost voltage and therefore could increase the power output of the battery at least by a factor of three. Thirdly, enhancing the surface area of the converter would increase the number of nickel-63 atoms on each converter.”

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Russian scientists achieve nuclear battery breakthrough - Time to read 4 min
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