Energy

Russian scientists pack more power into nuclear battery prototype

Russian scientists pack more p...
Russian researchers have developed a prototype of a nuclear battery with a much higher power density than other devices
Russian researchers have developed a prototype of a nuclear battery with a much higher power density than other devices
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The prototype of the new nuclear battery
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The prototype of the new nuclear battery
A diagram of the structure of the new nuclear battery prototype
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A diagram of the structure of the new nuclear battery prototype
Russian researchers have developed a prototype of a nuclear battery with a much higher power density than other devices
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Russian researchers have developed a prototype of a nuclear battery with a much higher power density than other devices

Imagine only replacing the batteries in a device once a decade, or even once a century. Nuclear batteries could one day let us do just that, but their power density is currently too low to be very practical. Now, Russian researchers have developed a new nuclear battery design based on nickel-63, which has a higher specific energy than regular, commercially-available batteries.

Nuclear power gets a bad rap, thanks to the fact that any nuclear material that escapes confinement can linger dangerously in the environment for decades or even centuries. But by the same token, if properly contained this longevity can be harnessed for good, releasing energy slowly and consistently over years.

Some nuclear batteries work through a process known as betavoltaics. A radioactive source inside the device decays and emits beta particles (electrons and positrons), and when these interact with a semiconductor layer they can create an electric current. While these kinds of batteries can deliver energy consistently for long periods of time, their low power density means that energy trickles out slowly.

Providing relatively low energy over a long time makes nuclear power sources great for applications where it's hard to change the battery, such as spacecraft or implantable devices like pacemakers. In the last few years, we've seen a strontium-based nuclear battery that splits water molecules to produce electricity, and the NanoTritium battery with a 20-year lifetime.

The new design developed by 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 uses the radioactive isotope nickel-63, which has a half-life of over 100 years. The team designed a new layout that improves the battery's power density.

A diagram of the structure of the new nuclear battery prototype
A diagram of the structure of the new nuclear battery prototype

The researchers determined that the nickel-63 layers would be most effective at a thickness of just two microns, and if these radioactive sources were sandwiched between diamond diodes measuring 10 microns thick. The prototype of the team's nuclear battery contained 200 of these diamond energy converters, and achieved a power output of about 1 microWatt (μW). Its power density was 10 μW per cm3, which means it could power a modern pacemaker.

Given nickel-63's hundred-year half-life, the nuclear battery boasts about 3,300 milliWatt-hours of power per gram, which the team says is 10 times more than conventional electrochemical batteries.

The prototype of the new nuclear battery
The prototype of the new nuclear battery

The researchers also developed a more efficient method of mass-producing the thin diamond layers with minimal losses. Producing the nickel-63 could be tricky at a large scale, but the team says that industrial scale production of the material may be rolling out in the next decade or so.

In future, the team plans to continue improving the nuclear battery design, and have already identified a few ways to boost the battery power. That includes enriching the nickel-63, changing the structure of the diamond converters, and giving these converters a larger surface area.

A paper describing the new nuclear battery design was published in the journal Diamond and Related Materials.

Source: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

2 comments
S Michael
This is propaganda, a shot across the U.S. and others bow that should the Russians be subject to sanctions they could release research and innovative batteries that would disrupt the markets for electric cars and individual power (powering of homes) which would cause disruption of power generating industries in the western countries causing unemployment on a wide scale. Diamond power is just now coming to the market. Not natural diamonds, but manufactured diamonds which is a leading Russian industry.
Synner
Nuclear pacemakers already exist and have for close to 50 years. It's only worth something if it has a power output >1kw. There are plenty of designs out there for nuclear batteries with a much higher power output.. even the ones powering the voyager probes could put out 300watts electric and 4.4kw thermal power.. throw a few of those together and you could power a house (albeit expensively) for the next 20 years. It's also slightly misleading for them to compare it to a chemical battery of the same size. Sure, you might get more power out of it, thing is you'll just have to wait 100 years.