Finally, A Calculator For The Atomic Age!

In the 1950s, a nuclear-powered future seemed a certainty. The public had not been made aware of the dangers posed by radioactive material, any large-scale accidents involving nuclear reactors had either been hushed up or were yet to happen, and industry and governments were anxious to provide good PR to further their aims. Our parents and grandparents were thus promised a future involving free energy from nuclear reactors in all sorts of everyday situations.

With the benefit of hindsight, we of course know how the story turned out. Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, and we’re still waiting for our atomic automobiles.

If you have a hankering for nuclear-powered domestic appliances though, all is not lost. [GH] is leading the charge towards a future of atomic energy, with a nuclear-powered calculator. It’s not quite what was promised in the ’50s, but it is nevertheless a genuine appliance for the Atomic Age. At its heart is not a 1950s-style fission reactor though, but a tritium tube. Beta particles from the tritium’s decay excite a phosphor coating on the tube’s inside wall, producing a small amount of light. This light is harvested with a solar cell, and the resulting electrical energy is stored in an electrolytic capacitor. The cell has an open-circuit voltage of 1.8 V, and the 100 μF capacitor in question stores a relatively tiny 162 μJ. From this source, a dollar store calculator can operate for about 30 sec, so there should be no hanging about with your mathematics.

We’ve brought you a tritium battery before, albeit a slightly larger one. And should you need the comforting glow of a tritium tube but not the radiation risk, how about this LED-based substitute?

17 thoughts on “Finally, A Calculator For The Atomic Age!

  1. If you were feeling brave you could make it much more efficient by building a betavoltaic cell. This would require the cracking open of the tube.

    A word of warning to anyone toying with this idea: although the glass entirely blocks the radiation emitted by the tritium (detectable radiation outside the tube is actually bremsstrahlung) the short half life of tritium means the standard sized tube can be almost as radioactive as a good portion of a gram of radium. If this were to enter your body as tritiated water it would be enough to not only significantly raise your cancer risk but also give you acute radiation poisoning.

    1. Inhalation of 1 Ci of tritium will give a whole-body effective dose of 66.6 uSv (as per the ICRP *Dose Coefficients for Intakes of Radionuclides by Workers*, 1995, which gives an effective dose coefficient of 1.8*10^-15 Sv/Bq).

      (This accounts for in-vivo conversion of 0.01 percent of the tritium intake into tritiated water, and this small amount of tritiated water does dominate the committed dose.)

      A typical tiny little tritium radioluminescent light source is well short of a curie, and the committed effective dose of 66.6 uSv (which will be spread out over time, depending on both the biological half-life of the HTO in the body and the physical 12.3 year half-life of the tritium.) Drinking lots of water will help turn over the body’s water content and get the tritium out faster. In any case, that’s not a dose remotely close to giving you acute radiation sickness.

    1. 1960s: Lockheed owned a nuclear research facility, including reactor, for investigating the feasibility of a nuclear-powered aircraft.
      Hot water for crew showers–on month-long flights, on C-5M-class aircraft–was a no-brainer.
      Nuclear-powered automobiles? Not enough room for a proper shower stall.

  2. The dream is not dead! There exists a controversy about whether or not certain radioisotopes can be triggered to decay at an accelerated rate with the use of x-rays. If it is possible to do it, you could get energy storage with enormous density, far beyond any chemical fuel, and release it on demand.

    It would bypass any existing non-proliferation treaty since it’s not a fission process. The weapons potential of the scheme is the most controversial part, presumably because it is so politically undesirable. – It could potentially enable gamma-ray lasers, which could shoot down ICBMs. Ukraine, Russia, and China are researching it openly, while the US made an extraordinary move to block publication of their results and publicly claimed it was impossible.

    More importantly, gamma ray lasers could enable research into kugelblitz black holes, which in turn could be utilized for interstellar travel in the long-term. Together with soliton fiber lasers and gamma-ray lenses, our species might not be doomed!

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