A Penny-Sized Nuclear Battery Could Keep Going, and Going…

By Eliza Strickland | October 12, 2009 11:23 am

nuclear-batteryTired of cellphones and other electronic gadgets that run out of juice too quickly? Then you can happily look forward to further developments from the lab of researcher Jae Wan Kwon, who has developed a long-lasting nuclear battery the size and thickness of a penny. In time, Kwon hopes to get the size down so that the battery is no thicker than a human hair.

The batteries pose no danger of a nuclear meltdown, Kwon notes. Although nuclear batteries generate electricity from atomic energy like nuclear reactors, they don’t use a chain reaction, instead using the emissions from a radioactive isotope to generate electricity [Gizmag]. As the isotope naturally decays, the charged particles released can be used to create an electrical current. Nuclear batteries, which hold their charges for years, are already used in some specialty fields. For example, they’re used to power spacecraft that are voyaging too far from the sun to run on solar panels, and also in pacemakers, since changing a battery inside the body would be rather inconvenient. But the existing batteries are large and expensive.

In the study, published in Applied Physics Letters, the researchers explain that they cut down on the battery’s size by changing some materials. “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 semiconductor, we believe we can minimize that problem” [Gizmag]. Usually, the batteries have to be made large enough to withstand the damage for the duration of the isotope’s decay, but the new design allows the battery to be much tinier.

The inventors developed the battery in an attempt to scale down power sources for the tiny devices that fall under the category of micro- and nano-electromechanical systems…. The means to power such devices has been a subject of study as vigorous as the development of the devices themselves [BBC News]. For the moment, the battery also delivers only a micro- or nano-sized energy burst, but Kwon and his colleagues are working on it.

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Image: Jae Wan Kwon, et al.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • torres

    What kind of nuclear material is being used? Is it plutonium, radium, uranium, thorium… These kinds of things matter when writing a science piece don’t they?

  • http://www.reallymagazine.com Martin g

    Hmmmm . . . no mention of the ‘W’ word then ?

    As in ‘ Waste ‘.

    Perhaps we haven’t already got enough problems with heavy metals from batteries contaminating landfill sites for many hundreds of years to come ?

    Why not up the odds and dump millions of dead nuke-batts too ?

    Our descendants will no doubt be amused to look back on our childish and tenuous grip on reality and responsibility ( after they’ve cleaned up the mess ).

  • http://treelobsters.blogspot.com Tree Lobsters

    torres: No mention of what this particular one uses as an isotope but a similar device developed a few years ago used nickel-63.

  • Carter

    Martin: A mention of the ‘W’ word in this article might have been a speculation as to how they may minimize battery waste. Imagine a day in the not so distant future when your digital camera can take pictures of another galaxy while you’re driving with it in your hand. And it doesn’t use disposable, wasteful batteries or rechargeable ones that have to be replaced every couple of years or less. It uses nuclear power! You never have to mess with the battery once you get it. True, once you get a new camera and toss the old one out, something would have to be done with its radioactive components. But we ought to be good enough at recycling by then to manage, or at least scan the trash for radioactivity and quarantine nuclear trash.

  • Cory

    When the battery runs out, it will no longer be radioactive, or at least much nearer to a stable state and thus much less radioactive. We’re not talking U-238 batteriess.

  • scribbler

    Two points…

    One is that the material is degrading whether we take advantage of it or not. The other is that we usually only toss something when it is of no easily obtainable use. It’s easy to imagine that even if you toss the device that you would remove and keep a battery with a year or more’s life in it…

  • Roy

    Hey! does this mean its possible to construct radiation “solar panels” and stick ’em onto nuclear waste, thereby rendering nuclear waste a good thing?

  • Joe

    Does that last comment even remotely apply to this discussion, much less make any sense??

  • vux

    i think what roy was trying to say was,
    “can we do the same thing w the radiation coming off of nuclear waste?”
    i’d like to know myself

  • Frank

    Irradiated food was a way to use spent tubes for profit, at thed cost of consumer health. Flouride was brought to us by Aluminum companies tired of throwing away their dust, now they pollute our drinking water with it.

    At least a dump full of glowing pennies might ennervate some bacteria to like the taste of plastic bottles and foam cups.

  • bongwater

    Carter, if there is one thing I hate more than a distracted driver, its a cancerous camera.

  • http://www.batterynitch.com Lance

    Hmmm. I love the idea of these really small batteries, but to reduce it to the size of a human hair? How will I be able to find it or handle it. Emerging new energy technology is mind boggling.

  • Terry

    What about using this technology on a larger scale, like running your car on them or powering your home? Would be nice not to fill your car up for 20 years or so.

  • Dipstick

    Ordinary AA batteries cost around a dollar each in a supermarket. It has been said that the nuclear battery delivers about 1 million times as much energy as an ordinary battery. So … expect it to be around a million times the price of an ordinary battery = 1 million dollars. Fancy mortgaging your house or spending your entire salary (for life) to pay off a battery … anyone?

  • Kevin Flynn

    Lets leave all the negativity behind. One long lasting battery versus all the Duracells at the dump now sounds like a good cobnservation move. Don’t let the word “nuke” scare everyone about radiation. Also, I love the idea of using decaying nuke waste to somehow generate power, that is great line of thought. The article did say the battery only delivers a nano size or micro size burst, but could you imagine running our homes and cars off this technology? Great suggestions. Our future might be brighter than the doomsday sayers tell us….

  • http://searchengineoptimizationpricings.blogspot.com/ search engine optimizaton pricing

    this is a pretty nice battery, but i must ask, what kind of effect does a battery like this will have on the environment with the world changing into a more green environment i think this is an important question

  • Joseph

    It would be amazing to convert all electrical power into nuclear power, but i wonder… could the world handle having to close down power plants?

  • http://www.platfund.com/conventionalloans.php Raymond Boller

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  • moromete

    i think it is using a thermoelectric generator : radioactive decay means heat, so a thermal gradient that is converted to electricity with a thermoelectric generator (at 5% yield or worse). it is not a new thing, it is used in voyager and pioneer spaceships…

  • Jonathan

    why do they use a picture of dime when the article is named “Penny sized”?
    Could they not find an actual penny?


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