Researchers create smaller and more efficient nuclear battery

October 7, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Batteries can power anything from small sensors to large systems. While scientists are finding ways to make them smaller but even more powerful, problems can arise when these batteries are much larger and heavier than the devices themselves. University of Missouri researchers are developing a nuclear energy source that is smaller, lighter and more efficient.

"To provide enough power, we need certain methods with high energy density," said Jae Kwon, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at MU. "The radioisotope battery can provide power density that is six orders of magnitude higher than chemical batteries."

Kwon and his research team have been working on building a small nuclear battery, currently the size and thickness of a penny, intended to power various micro/nanoelectromechanical systems (M/NEMS). Although nuclear batteries can pose concerns, Kwon said they are safe.

"People hear the word 'nuclear' and think of something very dangerous," he said. "However, sources have already been safely powering a variety of devices, such as pace-makers, space satellites and underwater systems."

His innovation is not only in the battery's size, but also in its semiconductor. Kwon's battery uses a liquid semiconductor rather than a solid semiconductor.

"The critical part of using a radioactive battery is that when you harvest the energy, part of the radiation energy can damage the lattice structure of the solid semiconductor," Kwon said. "By using a liquid , we believe we can minimize that problem."

Kwon has been collaborating with J. David Robertson, chemistry professor and associate director of the MU Research Reactor, and is working to build and test the battery at the facility. In the future, they hope to increase the battery's power, shrink its size and try with various other materials. Kwon said that the could be thinner than the thickness of human hair. They've also applied for a provisional patent.

Kwon's research has been published in the Journal of Applied Physics Letters and Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry.

Source: University of Missouri-Columbia (news : web)

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14 comments

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RayCherry
3 / 5 (1) Oct 07, 2009
If this technology can be made reliably safe, then it has an obvious place in the green energy solution, not only giving electric vehicles more range, but also storing energy captured from domestic or industrial renewable energy sources.
Arkaleus
4.7 / 5 (3) Oct 07, 2009
We aren't told the isotope the developer is using. I assume it's a strong alpha emitter like polonium or thorium. These are very rare and expensive metals and unless we start building a network of fast breeder reactors we're never going to have enough of them.
david_42
5 / 5 (2) Oct 07, 2009
I doubt this technology would scale up to the power requirements of a vehicle. SR90 (a beta emitter) is also used in RTG. Since this is a fission byproduct, it is relatively abundant, at least in countries that aren't afraid of re-processing nuclear fuels.
dirk_bruere
5 / 5 (2) Oct 07, 2009
Voltage? Current?
Arkaleus
4.7 / 5 (3) Oct 07, 2009
I guess the most limiting dimension of a business plan involving these materials would be the reliability of the packaging. It must resist exposure to the environment by accident and deliberate recovery. Perhaps nanocarbon encasements can be fabricated by using new nm-class surface techniques.

You mentioned RTG, but I doubt if an inefficient thermal conversion design would be used in practice. A radioisotope woven into a matrix of microscopic semiconductors could provide a highly efficient power source with a lifetime measured in months or even years.

Yet even if we encase the isotope in a graphene matrix, it is still vulnerable to abuse by deliberate deconstruction and refinement of the isotope and if concentrated enough these isotopes can cause mischief most societies would not welcome.

Perhaps the question becomes "What is the most harmless yet concentrated decay source safely used by the people?"
PPihkala
4 / 5 (1) Oct 07, 2009
RayCherry: This nuclear battery is a primary cell, it can not be recharged. It has radioactive material that by decaying is providing energy that is converted to electricity. Once that decay is over, so is the electrical energy, very similarly what one has in chemical primary batteries.

And then there will be the issue of price. Any battery energy is expensive and I bet this is more expensive than traditional chemical cells. But because of the better power per size ratio (power density), they might be the only choice in certain uses, like pacemakers.
bernino
4 / 5 (2) Oct 08, 2009
Photovoltaic tech follows Moore's law. Now that political focus and venture money is pooring into battery tech, you will see the same thing happen.

Photovoltaic tech is just about the cost of oil energy, so a real substitution candidate within years. Batteries are missing. Fuel cells may be an answer in some cases, but not for cars so far.

Check:
http://zorropaid....res-law/

Human ingenuity and imagination makes it that basically Moore's law applies to all tech. Even with all the nay-sayers we keep on surprising ourselves, finding new solutions to "impossible" problems.
El_Nose
2 / 5 (1) Oct 08, 2009
talk about a nonrenewable energy source -- once you make a couple hundred million of them your are done. No more nuclear material... or perhaps this will be the sink for nuclear waste -- 1/2 microgram of nuclear waste to power your kids tow mobile for ten years.
lengould100
2.7 / 5 (3) Oct 08, 2009
Simply further proof that nuclear "waste" is not really waste at all. The anti's should pull their fingers out of their ears for a bit.
ontheinternets
3.5 / 5 (2) Oct 08, 2009
I've generally been nuclear power's biggest fan (amongst everyone I know at least). Lately however, I've wondered if we should preserve our radioactive sources for space applications (where energy density can be crucial) unless we can find a way to actually create/charge these sources.. and for personal or competitive uses on earth, try to be content for now with what we can charge up from solar unless we've got a really good reason to do what we're considering.
Arkaleus
5 / 5 (3) Oct 08, 2009
We have enough uranium stocks to power a fast breeder reactor network for centuries. Fast breeder reactors will provide us a deep supply of isotopes.

Emotional opposition to nuclear power is irrelevant and will likely be completely forgotten when gasoline prices approach $5 a gallon.
Nartoon
1 / 5 (1) Oct 10, 2009
Where can I get a pair of AA's?
Improbus
5 / 5 (1) Oct 12, 2009
Why does everyone always forget about Thorium? You can build much safer and useful reactors for Thorium than you can for Uranium and Plutonium and you can't use it to breed heavier elements for nuclear weapons.
dirk_bruere
5 / 5 (1) Oct 16, 2009
"...power density that is six orders of magnitude higher than chemical batteries". So it can produce megawatts of power? I think not. OTOH, its energy density might be six orders of magnitude higher than chemical batteries.

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