Interview: The NDB team on its revolutionary nano-diamond batteries
A cheap, safe, self-charging battery that delivers high power for decades without ever needing a charge? That's a game changer. California-based company NDB is making some outrageous promises with its nano-diamond battery technology, which could completely disrupt the energy generation, distribution and provision models if deployed at scale.
Each of these batteries, which can be built to fit any existing standard or shape, uses a small amount of recycled nuclear waste, reformed into a radioactive diamond structure and coated in non-radioactive lab diamonds for safety.
We explained the technology in detail in our original NDB nano-diamond battery breakdown, but we also had the opportunity to speak with members of the NDB executive team. CEO Dr. Nima Golsharifi, COO Dr. Mohammed Irfan and Chief Strategy Officer Neel Naicker joined us on a Zoom call to talk about the technology and its potential for disruptive change.
What follows is an edited transcript.
Dr Nima Golsharifi: Our battery is based on the beta decay and alpha decay of radioisotopes. The technology we have encapsulates this radioisotope in a very safe manner, which allows it to be used in basically any application that current batteries are being used for.
Loz: The particular type of carbon that you're using, where do you get that?
Nima: Basically we're using a range of different isotopes, not just one particular one, but access to these are through different methods. We have some partners in collaboration at the moment that can provide us with them.
But they're basically taken from nuclear waste. So we can recycle them and use the raw materials for our application. But we can also synthesize it in large scale in our facility. So both are possibilities.
Loz: OK. So what part of a nuclear reactor creates this waste? What's it doing before it becomes waste?
Nima: Basically, some parts of the nuclear reactor, like the moderator and the refractor, are being exposed to radiation from the fuel rods. Over time they become radioactive themselves. That's the part that they have to store as nuclear waste.
So this part could be taken away, and through some process, either gasification or some other processes we've designed, we can convert that into a useful raw material for our batteries.
Sheikh Mohammed Irfan: Dr. Nima, maybe you can also talk about how big of a waste problem that is for the nuclear industry currently.
Nima: Sure. At the moment, their expenditure is more than a hundred million dollars every year. Nuclear waste is a very large issue across the world. And beside this, there's basically no other way to re-use it in a safe solution.
So what we're doing covers two challenges in one. Converting nuclear waste into a battery that generates power in a very safe manner. Once this battery is used – and it can have a very long life span – it becomes a very safe byproduct that's of no harm to the environment.
Loz: Right. So I saw a number somewhere that these batteries can last for 28,000 years.
Nima: Let me correct that. It depends on the type of radioisotope you're using, and for every application the lifetime is different. But what we can say is that the battery would operate for the lifetime of the application itself, for sure. For some applications, much higher. So if you're talking about electric vehicles, our battery could run for around 90 years without the requirement of recharging.
When it comes to something like consumer electronics, it'd be more like 9 years. In some small sensor applications, it can go for up to 28,000 years.
Loz: I understand. So what sort of quantities of this waste are there around the world? Is this super common stuff, or is it reasonably finite?
Nima: Basically we're covering two different kinds of nuclear waste. One is intermediate, and the other is high level. So there will be a time where we have recycled the entire amount of nuclear waste, and we'll need new solutions for the raw material. But as I mentioned, we'll be able to produce this raw material through other methods, including transmutation.
That's a process that's currently being used, and not something we've invented ourselves. It was invented by MIT, and it involves a centrifuge to separate out the isotopes. The main ingredient is nitrogen, which is the major component of air, so it's a very cheap solution.
Loz: So you've got your nuclear waste, it's obviously dangerous for humans. How does it become safe to be used in a battery?
Nima: Basically, we can generate a high amount of cover from the radioactive substance. We're using a combination of technologies within our structure that can make it very safe to users. Mainly it comes down to the fact that we're using diamond structures.
Diamond itself has different interesting properties. It's one of the best heat sinks available at the moment, for example. That on its own covers thermal safety. When it comes to mechanical safety, diamond is one of the strongest materials in the world. 11.5 times stronger than steel. So again, that itself makes the battery tamper-proof and safe.
In addition to that, we have a combination of other technologies, including the implantation of the radioisotopes within the diamond structure, which stops the spread of the radioisotopes even if the structure is broken down – which is kind of impossible without access to specific tools like lasers and others.
So in general I can say it's a combination of technologies that we've either innovated or invented that create a very safe structure as a battery.
Irfan: I'd like to add to that, that using radioisotopes as a source for energy is not new. We have nuclear medicine, where patients are treated with controlled equipment, which has always given effective results. Similarly, we have had nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers. Of course, that's a completely different process, but it's been able to successfully and safely deliver power and energy without safety issues.
What Dr. Nima has highlighted is that the choice of diamond as a material is one of the strongest natural materials, and it acts as a powerful shielding and protection mechanism.
Loz: Right. Can you describe how the energy is extracted and harnessed?
Nima: Maybe I can give an example that could help you understand. Let's go to solar cells, everyone's familiar with those. These convert the energy from light radiation into electricity in photovoltaic cells.
In our case, we're converting the radiation from alpha/beta decay – alpha and beta radiation – directly into electricity. And the mechanism we're using is simple crystalline diamond. As I mentioned before, we have another layer, which is fully crystalline diamond, creating extra shielding and safety for this structure.
Neel Naicker: What Nima's describing is how the radioactivity produced by the body is actually more than what you get from these batteries. They're quite safe.
Loz: So in terms of evaluating batteries for use in cars, eVTOLs and things like that, the main metrics seem to be energy density, power density, safety in a crash, that sort of thing. Do you know what sort of figures you're looking at with these batteries?
Nima: When it comes to energy density, the energy density of a basic radioisotope is far beyond anything else on the market.
When it comes to power density, the solution we have will give a higher level. But compared to the way that energy density is higher, power density is not that much higher. But it's still significantly better than other batteries in the market.
And as far as crashes, no crash could break down our structure at all. Because you're using the diamond, and the specific mechanisms that make it stronger. The only way to get through the structure we have is the use of specific tools and lasers, which are quite expensive.
Neel: Another way to look at this is to think of it in an iPhone. With the same size battery, it would charge your battery from zero to full, five times an hour. Imagine that. Imagine a world where you wouldn't have to charge your battery at all for the day. Now imagine for the week, for the month… How about for decades? That's what we're able to do with this technology.
Loz: It would strike at the heart of the disposable model the phone companies tend to use.
Neel: You've hit the nail on the head there. A couple of things. One is the ability for us to power things at scale. We can start at the nanoscale and go up to power satellites, locomotives… Imagine that.
Secondly, we're taking something that's a big negative – radioactive waste, very dangerous – and turning it into something productive that provides electricity.
The third thing is that we wanna use this technology to get low-cost electricity to places that need it. We've now disrupted the whole mechanism of the creation and storage of power. There's a lot of infrastructure needed before you can flip a light switch and a light comes on.
But with what we've created, you don't need that infrastructure. You could put one of these batteries in a home, and boom, you've eliminated the whole infrastructure. Imagine the disruption that's gonna cause, for good or for bad. It'll upset a few people.
We've taken something that's really harmful to the environment, a problem, and created energy. And for places that don't have the electrical infrastructure in place, we want to provide that at a very low cost.
Loz: Let's talk about cost a little. Obviously lithium batteries cost a lot, they're a primary component of the cost of electric vehicles. Do you guys have a sense for what these things could cost in a commercial environment?
Nima: Yes, we've done financial modelling around this. A lot of applications have been considered. What we can say is it'll depend on the application, but it should be at a good competition level with current lithium-ion batteries.
In some cases, you're a little bit higher in price for production, and in others, when it goes to scale, we're a cheaper solution. Let me give you an example. Take the battery for a Tesla car, it costs somewhere in the region of US$9-10K. Our battery will cost something in the region of US$7-8K. But it's different in different applications.
Loz: So, cheaper and it never needs charging, and it lasts for vastly longer than any lithium cell.
Irfan: Not only is it a few thousand cheaper for the battery pack, but ours recharges itself. So on a Tesla, you need to recharge, stop, over time the battery wears itself out. Ours lasts for a long time.
We'll probably have them available under some sort of subscription model, pay as you go, but it'll be substantially cheaper than what the mechanism is today for a Tesla car.
Loz: Extraordinary. How far along is this technology? How far are we off mass production? Where are you at with prototyping and testing?
Nima: We're in the prototyping stage at the moment. We've completed the proof of concept, and we're about to start the commercial prototype. However, the pandemic has happened, and the lab has been shut down for some time.
But basically once the laboratories are open, we do require around 6-9 months to complete our commercial prototype, and following that to go through the regulatory process, to bring the first few applications for the battery into the market in less than two years' time.
Loz: So it's not far off.
Neel: Just to give you an example, we'll take Google, which has data centers all across the world. Amazon, Facebook, all of these companies. In confidential conversations we've had with some of these parties, we've spoken about how they use and dispose of more Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) than anyone on the planet. Google always has to be on. And those UPS units have a use by date, they have to discard them.
Our product will be able to support that, while reducing the carbon footprint, and lasting far, far longer. That's a game changer when you consider how big an operation something like AWS is. It'll be a huge product for that.
A secondary product will be for the satellite market, where there'll be no regard for whether it's radioactive or not. Low-power satellites, we'll be able to power those for a long, long time without having any regard to whether they're facing the Sun, or getting any Sun on their solar panels, or whatever.
It changes the whole dynamic. Not only have we disrupted the whole energy infrastructure for creating and delivering power, we can also make big changes to the business model for a lot of companies. Big concerns can just become negligible.
This will change a lot of industries. In the future, we could look at using these to power nanorobots moving inside the body. It works from the nanoscale up to large scale. We think it'll be very impressive.
Loz: So the limits on this technology will be what, availability of the raw materials? Regulations? Do you see any regulatory barriers?
Irfan: It's a good question. We've done a comprehensive study on the regulatory and compliance aspects of our technology. Fortunately there are other devices already on the market that use radioisotopes and radioactive material inside them. Some are in the medical industry, like pacemakers. There are already different types of regulations in place.
So the matter here would be our design complying to those regulations, and we've been doing that over time.
Neel: In your home, you'll have smoke detectors, right? All of those have the same radioactivity as well. That's one point.
When it comes to availability, there's enough raw materials out there that we can develop for a long time. That's not the issue. Also, on the regulatory side there are some markets we can go into immediately without any concerns there. Aerospace, military, many others where there aren't the same requirements for compliance.
For a car, it may be different. For a hearing aid, it may be different, or a consumer product. But there are some applications where it won't be a problem at all.
Loz: Right. This is perhaps a bit of a crass question to ask, but do you guys have to pay for this nuclear waste, or are people paying you to take it away?
Irfan: (Laughs) I'm glad you brought that up! We've got a few places that have offered to pay us to take it away. It's a nuisance for them. They have to store it, and you can imagine the regulations around that. In many cases, they have to keep the public a certain distance away. They'll actually pay us to take this stuff away.
So it's a secondary opportunity for us from a revenue standpoint, and we've discussed this with several partners.
Loz: What a wonderful business to be in, where you're paid to take your own raw materials.
Neel. I wanna drive one thing home. If you take a look at the map of energy use in the world, and the map of wealth in the world, they're very similar. One thing we're trying to do with our application is trying to get some of these devices out to places where kids don't have electricity to do their homework, or to power clean water technology.
We're very adamant that this be a component of our business. And while we can't mention too many names, we've spoken with several big partners who would support this effort. Some of these companies feel they need to do good in the world, and providing electricity to places across the world that don't have it is a great opportunity for them.
Again, they don't have the huge infrastructure in place. But we don't need the infrastructure. We don't need power stations, or power lines, or any of that, to provide power. We're adamant as a team that we will give back in a major way that today's infrastructure won't allow.
Loz: In terms of the IP around this, how much do you guys own, and how much competition do you expect?
Irfan: Right now, we have patents pending around our technology. I think we're quite ahead of the competition that exists in the market, we started much earlier than the others and our technology is more advanced.
We thank the NDB team members for their time and look forward to learning more as development progresses.