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Penny-Sized Nuclear Batteries Developed 444

pickens writes "Nuclear batteries that produce energy from the decay of radioisotopes are an attractive proposition for many applications because the isotopes that power them can provide a useful amount of current for hundreds of years at power densities a million times as high as standard batteries. Nuclear batteries have been used for military and aerospace applications for years, their large size has limited their general usage. But now a research team at the University of Missouri has developed a nuclear battery the size of a penny that could be used to power micro- and nano-electromechanical systems. The researchers' innovation is not only in the battery's size, but also that the batteries use 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,' says Jae Wan Kwon. 'By using a liquid semiconductor, we believe we can minimize that problem.' The batteries are safe under normal operating conditions. 'People hear the word "nuclear" and think of something very dangerous,' says Kwon. 'However, nuclear power sources have already been safely powering a variety of devices, such as pacemakers, space satellites, and underwater systems.'"
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Penny-Sized Nuclear Batteries Developed

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  • Cars??? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by clonan ( 64380 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @09:34AM (#29691627)

    So lets scale these up and replace the power pakcs on cars!

    I would love to be able to drive for a few hundred years between recharges!

  • by bmo ( 77928 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @09:36AM (#29691655)

    Everything is safe under "normal conditions"

    The problem is that normal people are fucking stupid. Imagine the shitstorm when someone disassembles one of these to "see what's inside."


  • Re:ohhhhh... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MickyTheIdiot ( 1032226 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @09:40AM (#29691731) Homepage Journal

    I know this a joke, but it does remind me of something. One of the arguments that people on the far right have tried to use to convince the public that Iran is trying to build bombs and not energy is: "Iran has so much oil, why would they care about nuclear energy?"

    Easy, sherlock... they aren't going to have oil forever. Iran might be thinking ahead. They might not want to make the same mistake that the U.S. made it comes to oil dependency.

    Having said that, I still think that Iran's program is to make a bomb... but I think that argument is idiotic.

  • Foundation (Score:3, Interesting)

    by locallyunscene ( 1000523 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @09:49AM (#29691881)
    One of the things that always stuck out at me was the mini nuclear batteries in the Foundation series of books. I had just assumed such things were impossible and were just and artifact of the time the books were written in. Apparently my imagination just wasn't flexible enough.
  • Re:Cars??? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Smegly ( 1607157 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @09:52AM (#29691939)
    The usual suspects [wikipedia.org] are already against it, regardless of whether the tech is viable or not... and in this case the said usual suspects only have to yell "Nuclear Threat!!" to an already scared population to keep this off your roadways, forever... whether its a valid fear or not [wikipedia.org]
  • by Lueseiseki ( 1189513 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @09:54AM (#29691969)

    Everything is safe under "normal conditions"

    The problem is that normal people are fucking stupid. Imagine the shitstorm when someone disassembles one of these to "see what's inside."

    -- BMO

    Saying that is like implying that everything is intrinsically safe, and it's humans which will invariably mess things up just because it's possible. In a way you're right, people will do stupid things regardless, but things are designed/exist as (less) safer than other things. Guns kill people under normal conditions, knives cut people under normal conditions, tear gas aggrivates parts of peoples' eyes under normal conditions.

  • Re:ohhhhh... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by SteeldrivingJon ( 842919 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @09:54AM (#29691987) Homepage Journal

    Easy, sherlock... they aren't going to have oil forever. Iran might be thinking ahead. They might not want to make the same mistake that the U.S. made it comes to oil dependency.

    Or, they could figure that it's bloody stupid to burn their own oil for power when they could sell it on the market as global supplies dwindle and/or demand rises. Better to use nuclear to generate electricity and use the fossil fuels to provide revenue for the future.

  • Niche applications (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Painted ( 1343347 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @09:56AM (#29692013) Homepage
    There are a number of niche applications where this could be incredibly useful. As others have said, pacemakers and other implanted or critical medical devices (I'm thinking defibrillators), but also emergency lighting and well, pretty much anything that has a larger, traditional battery pack that has to be trickle charged.

    A fairly obvious application would be long-life smoke detectors, since they already contain radioactive materials. You could stick one up on a vaulted ceiling and forget about it for 10 years...
  • Re:Cars??? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by PolygamousRanchKid ( 1290638 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @10:02AM (#29692121)

    So don't call it "nuclear decay." That just sounds bad all around.

    Use a tried and proven practice by inventing a euphemism for "nuclear decay." How about "elemental ebbing," or "EE" for short?

    Joe Public would definitely buy something labeled, "Powered by EE, as in grEEn!"

  • by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @10:05AM (#29692167) Journal

    The "problem" is that the current would not be variable. The amount of electrons produced would be consistent (or perhaps slowly reduce as the elements decay). The article says that it contains a "million times as much charge as standard batteries". True, but it might take 100 years of decay to produce those electrons.
    So this would be fine for something that draws a consistent amount of current, like a wristwatch (not counting the backlight), but for most applications this power source would have to be coupled with an actual battery or capacitor to store the continuously emitted electrons for use on demand, or to provide bursts of current, etc.

    So this would be more like a trickle battery charger than an actual battery.

  • Re:Cars??? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bai jie ( 653604 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @10:06AM (#29692179)
    You know, maybe we need a new word for nuclear. A good old rebranding like corporations do when their name is now met with general public distrust (regardless if the distrust is warranted). We can still call all bombs nuclear, but from now on we should use the term Hydro-Exothermic power plants to describe new power plants. Or something that makes people think of steam instead of ZOMG radiation and bombs.
  • Re:Cars??? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @10:09AM (#29692251) Homepage

    You don't recharge it. You use it for a thousand years, then throw it into a landfill. Or a nearby star.

  • by mrnick ( 108356 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @10:32AM (#29692689) Homepage

    Something that produces energy from the decay of radioisotopes is called a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) whereas a battery is an array of electrochemical cells for electricity storage.

    3 Mile Island and more recently Chernobyl have our society so afraid of nuclear power, the dreaded China syndrome, that regardless of how safe it becomes we will refuse to adopt it.

    RTG technology is the safest way to produce energy and the greenest energy known to man. It takes something that would otherwise be dangerous and turns it into something productive. NASA uses this technology to power space probes, Voyager-1 is still being powered by one today, and will continue to do so until the year 2025. Plutonium 238 is the best fuel for a RTG, because of its long half-life and the fact that it cannot (yes CANNOT) sustain a chain reaction is somehow any of it started to fuse.

    I looked into this technology when I built a mini robotic submarine in graduate school. But, that's when I found out two things: 1) I would have to submit to an anal probe before the Nuclear Regulatory Commiseration (NRC) would denied me the right to posses any more radioactive material than can be found in about 3 smoke detectors and 2) The room, labeled radioactive storage, in the Science building, where I attended University, with the big yellow radioactive sign is there to impress benefactors and since it lacks a smoke detector contains no radioactive material (LOL).

    Improvements in power generation from nuclear fuel has become pretty safe over the last few years. Pebble bed reactor technology can theoretically remain stable indefinitely even without external cooling, though I don't think that has been put to the test. But, to be a viable energy solution a country really needs to adopt this method on mass because each reactor can only power a portion of a city so to be a major benefit a country would have one of these in everyone's backyard. RTG technology is even safer. It generates energy from the heat that occurs from the natural decay of a nuclear fuel.

    If I could get my hands on say an ounce of Pu 238 I could build a RTG that would power my home, all my vehicles, and enable me to quit my job and live of the check my local electricity provider would have to pay me for the excess power I would generate. It would generate full power for ~ 87 years and not only wold I be using the greenest power available I would be providing a community service of disposing of a radioactive material.

    But, echelon might flag me for even writing this post (looks around nervously)... The irrational fear of a China Syndrome scenario combined with the recent dose of terrorism (fear of dirty bombs) would never allow me to build one, even if I was a nuclear scientist, which I am not.

    So, make an inventory of the smoke detectors you own. If the total is above 3 then you are in possession of enough nuclear material that would require you to get a license from the NRC. If you don't have a license from the NRC and own more than 3 smoke detectors you are likely in possession of an illegal amount of barium and could be flagged as an enemy combative and thanks to George W. Bush enemy combative have no right to any legal representation and can be summarily executed or detained for an indefinite amount of time without even informing anyone that they took you into custody.

    Heck, I don't need smoke detectors that much!

    Nick Powers

  • by OutSourcingIsTreason ( 734571 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @10:36AM (#29692767)
    Actually, the ultimate source of farts is atmospheric CO2 sequestered by the chlorophyll in green vegetation. It's only the evil fossil fuels that add massive quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere.
  • Pacemaker power? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dazedNconfuzed ( 154242 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @10:42AM (#29692877)

    nuclear power sources have already been safely powering a variety of devices, such as pacemakers

    Considering my pacemaker battery needs replacing every 5 years (and I'm just 41) by cutting into my shoulder, I'd like very much to know more.

  • Re:ohhhhh... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jeffasselin ( 566598 ) <cormacolinde@gmai l . com> on Friday October 09, 2009 @11:25AM (#29693617) Journal

    Even better: burning oil in combustion engines is retarded. We need that oil to power modern industries like plastics and high tech engineering.

  • by jameskojiro ( 705701 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @11:57AM (#29694209) Journal

    They really need to declassify Beta Decay Isotoped lighter than Iron as Dangerous or terrorist materials. Beta Decay is pretty damned harmless and you cannot use it to 'Breed" other nuclear materials like you can with Neutron/Gamma/ or even alpha decay sources. Also if the decay substance is an element lighter than iron you cannot get any usable energy out of it if it Fissions. You can only get energy out of it by having the neutrons decay into Protons and eject a electron. (electricity which can be used)

    Electrons will never get inside the core of another atom to change the atomic structure and therefor are not useful at all when it comes to making inert elements radioactive.

    Maybe we could make large Nuclear waste processing plants that use heavy volatile elements that gamma or neutron decay to breed large amounts of light elements that beta decay, then ship the material to regional "power plants" that are nothing more than large Light element Nuclear RTG/Beta batteries.

    The greenie weenies would never stand to let such a project be built because they are weenies.


  • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Friday October 09, 2009 @01:07PM (#29695293) Homepage Journal

    Jimmy Carter holds a degree in nuclear engineering. But refresh my memory, didn't Three Mile Island happen when he was President? If so, I think that probably had a lot to do with the directive.

    Never vote a man who is both a nuclear engineer and a peanut farmer into the White House! Unless, of course, he's running against an oil man.

  • Re:Cars??? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Beardo the Bearded ( 321478 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @01:16PM (#29695431)

    Meh, call it "material power", put it in a AA form factor, and sell it for $20 as a "forever battery".

    Forever batteries -- now with 400,000 Ah capacity. Take pictures until your camera breaks. Never charge your Wiimotes. Keep your family safe with never-dying smoke detectors.

    and the kicker:

    your cell phone will never run out of power.

    Joe Public will be lining up around the block to get their hands on these bad boys.

  • Re:Cars??? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Rei ( 128717 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @01:34PM (#29695753) Homepage

    IF they're talking about an RTG, I'd rule that right out. I'm not fond of the idea of every car in the country carrying hundreds of kilograms of highly radioactive isotopes around when manufacturing defects are inevitable and there are 6.3 million car crashes and 260,000 car fires every year.

    On the other hand, it sounds like what they're describing is actually betavoltaics (God, I hate it when science articles are this vague...). If that's the case, no big deal. Betavoltaics use tritium as the fuel, and tritium is less dangerous than, say, the lead in your lead-acid battery. It's a very weak radiation (can't penetrate skin, doesn't go very far through air), and when ingested, the tritium (generally being in the form of water) has a very short residency in the body.

    The problem with scaling up betavoltaics is supply. How can you supply that much tritium in any remotely affordable manner? It just doesn't seem plausible.

  • Re:Cars??? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by psydeshow ( 154300 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @02:38PM (#29696625) Homepage


    Atomic battery. Seriously, it's all quaint and 1950s. Still a little cool and scary, but also fully controllable.

    Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were Nuclear Power Plants, generating Nuclear Power. We want to build Atomic Energy Stations that generate Atomic Energy. See the difference in how it sounds?

  • Re:Disposal (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Beardo the Bearded ( 321478 ) on Friday October 09, 2009 @02:57PM (#29696891)

    Put a $2 deposit on them and you'll have most of them returned. The rest will be picked up by the same meth-heads who go through the garbage cans for pop bottles.

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