Nano-diamond self-charging batteries could disrupt energy as we know it
California company NDB says its nano-diamond batteries will absolutely upend the energy equation, acting like tiny nuclear generators. They will blow any energy density comparison out of the water, lasting anywhere from a decade to 28,000 years without ever needing a charge. They will offer higher power density than lithium-ion. They will be nigh-on indestructible and totally safe in an electric car crash. And in some applications, like electric cars, they stand to be considerably cheaper than current lithium-ion packs despite their huge advantages.
The heart of each cell is a small piece of recycled nuclear waste. NDB uses graphite nuclear reactor parts that have absorbed radiation from nuclear fuel rods and have themselves become radioactive. Untreated, it's high-grade nuclear waste: dangerous, difficult and expensive to store, with a very long half-life.
This graphite is rich in the carbon-14 radioisotope, which undergoes beta decay into nitrogen, releasing an anti-neutrino and a beta decay electron in the process. NDB takes this graphite, purifies it and uses it to create tiny carbon-14 diamonds. The diamond structure acts as a semiconductor and heat sink, collecting the charge and transporting it out. Completely encasing the radioactive carbon-14 diamond is a layer of cheap, non-radioactive, lab-created carbon-12 diamond, which contains the energetic particles, prevents radiation leaks and acts as a super-hard protective and tamper-proof layer.
To create a battery cell, several layers of this nano-diamond material are stacked up and stored with a tiny integrated circuit board and a small supercapacitor to collect, store and instantly distribute the charge. NDB says it'll conform to any shape or standard, including AA, AAA, 18650, 2170 or all manner of custom sizes.
And so what you get is a tiny miniature power generator in the shape of a battery that never needs charging – and that NDB says will be cost-competitive with, and sometimes significantly less expensive than – current lithium batteries. That equation is helped along by the fact that some of the suppliers of the original nuclear waste will pay NDB to take it off their hands.
Radiation levels from a cell, NDB tells us, will be less than the radiation levels produced by the human body itself, making it totally safe for use in a variety of applications. At the small scale, these could include things like pacemaker batteries and other electronic implants, where their long lifespan will save the wearer from replacement surgeries. They could also be placed directly onto circuit boards, delivering power for the lifespan of a device.
In a consumer electronics application, NDB's Neel Naicker gives us an example of just how different these devices would be: "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."
And it can scale up to electric vehicle sizes and beyond, offering superb power density in a battery pack that is projected to last as long as 90 years in that application – something that could be pulled out of your old car and put into a new one. If part of a cell fails, the active nano diamond part can be recycled into another cell, and once they reach the end of their lifespan – which could be up to 28,000 years for a low-powered sensor that might, for example, be used on a satellite – they leave nothing but "harmless byproducts."
In the words of Dr. John Shawe-Taylor, UNESCO Chair and University College London Professor: “NDB has the potential to solve the major global issue of carbon emissions in one stroke without the expensive infrastructure projects, energy transportation costs, or negative environmental impacts associated with alternate solutions such as carbon capture at fossil fuel power stations, hydroelectric plants, turbines, or nuclear power stations. Their technology’s ability to deliver energy over very long periods of time without the need for recharging, refueling, or servicing puts them in an ideal position to tackle the world’s energy requirements through a distributed solution with close to zero environmental impact and energy transportation costs.”
Indeed, the NDB battery offers an outstanding 24-hour energy proposition for off-grid living, and the NDB team is adamant that it wishes to devote a percentage of its time to providing it to needy remote communities as a charity service with the support of some of the company's business customers.
Should the company chew right through the world's full supply of carbon-14 nuclear waste – a prospect that would take some extremely serious volume – NDB says it can create its own carbon-14 raw material simply and cost-effectively.
The company claims to have completed a proof of concept, and is ready to begin building its commercial prototype once its labs reopen after COVID shutdown. A low-powered commercial version is expected to hit the market in less than two years, and the high-powered version is projected for five years' time. NDB says it's well ahead of its competition with patents pending on its technology and manufacturing processes.
Should this pan out as promised, it's hard to see how this won't be a revolutionary power source. Such a long-life battery would fundamentally challenge the disposable ethos of many modern technologies, or lead to battery packs that consumers carry with them from phone to phone, car to car, laptop to laptop across decades. NDB-equipped homes can be grid-connected or not. Each battery is its own near-inexhaustible green energy source, quietly turning nuclear waste into useful energy.
Sounds like remarkable news to us!
We spoke with several members of the NDB executive team. Check out the full edited transcript of that interview for more information, or watch the cartoon video below.
Update, August 27, 2020: We have contacted NDB to clarify several of their claims in this article. At this stage we believe the power density claims may relate to the power delivered by the supercapacitor part of the cell, rather than to how much energy the carbon-14 diamond itself is capable of generating. If this is the case, we may be looking at a very slow trickle charge from the diamond into the supercapacitor, and a high power output from the supercapacitor.
The properties of supercapacitors are well known: high power density allowing fast charge and discharge, long lifespan, and low energy density – meaning they can store only a small amount of energy per volume.
Such a system – a trickle-charged supercapacitor – could be useful for sustained, low-power applications, and for emergency applications like Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) that can slowly charge themselves for weeks or months between periods of discharge, but would not generate power anywhere near quickly enough for use in a long-range electric car or other applications requiring sustained high power outputs from a compact battery pack.
NDB speaks of low- and high-power versions of the cell in development, but until we see some output figures the claims are still hazy, and until we see some proof, they are of course just claims. We'll keep you updated.