New technology is being developed that uses nuclear waste to generate electricity in a nuclear-powered battery. The team from the University of Bristol, led by Professor Tom Scott, has grown a series of man-made diamond devices that, when placed in a radioactive field, are able to generate a small electrical current. When the diamonds are grown a radioactive form of carbon, the devices can become a very long-live power cell, providing a trickle of current for literally thousands of years. This development could solve some of the problems of nuclear waste, clean electricity generation and battery life.
To power the ‘diamond batteries’, the team uses carbon-14, the radioactive isotope of carbon, which is generated in graphite bricks used to moderate the reaction in nuclear power plants. Research by academics at Bristol has shown that the radioactive carbon-14 is concentrated at the surface of these bricks, making it possible to process it to remove the majority of the radioactive material. The extracted carbon-14 is then incorporated into a diamond to produce a nuclear-powered battery. The UK currently holds 90,000 tonnes of graphite bricks and by extracting carbon-14 from them, their radioactivity decreases, reducing the cost and challenge of safely storing this nuclear waste.
Despite their low-power, relative to current battery technologies, the life-time of these diamond batteries could revolutionise the powering of devices over long timescales. Using carbon-14 the battery would take 5,730 years to reach 50 per cent power, which is about as long as human civilization has existed!
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Professor Tom Scott is Director of the Interface Analysis Centre (IAC) at the University of Bristol, a specialist analytical centre for research on materials of all types. He holds a first class MSci honours degree in Geology and a PhD in Nuclear Materials. He is also a Royal Academy of Engineering Professorial Research Fellow co-funded by the AWE, Director of the South West Nuclear Hub and lectures in the School of Earth Sciences at Bristol. His research expertise is around the detection and characterisation of nuclear materials, to aid prediction of their behaviour in engineered and environmental scenarios. This includes a specific strand of activity relating to natural materials and their interaction with radionuclides and HAW surfaces including geological disposal facility waste and backfill components.
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