The Thousand Year (Radioactive) Diamond Battery

The Holy Grail of battery technology is a cell which lasts forever, a fit-and-forget device that never needs replacing. It may seem a pipe-dream, but University of Bristol researchers have come pretty close. The catch? Their battery lasts a very long time, but it generates micropower, and it’s radioactive.

They’re using a thin layer of vapour-deposited carbon-14 diamond both as a source of beta radiation, and as a semiconductor material which harvests those electrons. They’re expected to be used for applications such as intermittent sensors, where they would slowly charge a supercapacitor which could release useful amounts of power in short bursts.

It’s being touted as an environmental win because the carbon-14 is sourced from radioactive waste, but against that it’s not unreasonable to have a concern about the things being radioactive. The company commercializing the tech leads with the bold question: “What would you do with a power-cell that outlasts the device it powers?“, to which we would hope the answer won’t be “Throw it away to be a piece of orphaned radioactive waste in the environment when the device it powers is outlasted”. We’ll have to wait and see whether devices containing these things turn up on the surplus market in a couple of decades.

Fortunately the carbon-14 lives not in cartoonish vats of radioactive green slime but safely locked away in diamond, about the safest medium for it to be in. The prototype devices are also tiny, so we’re guessing that the quantity of carbon-14 involved is also small enough to not be a problem. We’re curious though whether they could become a valuable enough commodity to be reused and recycled in themselves, after all something that supplies energy for decades could power several different devices over its lifetime. Either way, it’s a major improvement over a tritium cell.

44 thoughts on “The Thousand Year (Radioactive) Diamond Battery

    1. You’d be hard-pressed to find an application where any number of much safer and cheaper methods could scavenge 15 Joules per day. There’s a reason why RTGs pretty much only power deep-space probes and some poorly thought-out Soviet lighthouses.

  1. “It’s not unreasonable to have a concern about the things being radioactive.

    There is the fact that C14 is already found in every single living creature on the planet already, which is the only reason carbon dating works.

      1. But it is a beta emitter. Now it is more potent than alpha, but not that much. Cloth can block it. Aluminum foil. Even if you were to swallow one, it wouldn’t be all that damaging.

        1. You’ve got this the wrong way around. The fact it’s easily stopped means it’s very damaging if it gets inside you, because your cells and DNA are absorbing the radiation.

          Alpha emitters are the most dangerous to ingest for this reason, with gamma the safest (ignoring toxicity and dose).

          Outside the body it’s the other way around, as your dead skin shields the living tissue (completely for alpha, less so for beta).

  2. I don’t see too many use cases where this brings any real advantages compared to a (much cheaper) LiSOCL2 battery. These batteries can reach a lifetime of up to about 40 years, this should be enough for the lifetime of most devices. Also from a power output level, the battery would likely perform much better than the nuclear option, a typical D-cell sized battery (i.e. Tadiran SL-2880) has a rated capacity of 19 Ah at 3.6V. When doing the math this is equivalent to about 195 µW over a duration of 40 years, so even if we assume that 50-70% of the total energy is lost to self discharge over the years it is still much more than 1 µW (the power output advertised for the diamond C14 nuclear battery on the website).

  3. Not really a “battery”; more of a nuclear power cell. Neat application, though. Carbon-14 is fairly benign as far as radioisotopes go. It’s everywhere already.

    1. came here to say the same. Batteries have to be charged after they have been discharged. These diamond film/carbon structures are really nanogenerators, not batteries.

      1. I would be willing to bet that you are consuming pounds of C14 every year. If you swallowed the battery it wouldnt be in your system as long as the digestable carbon based stuff we all eat. In several million years some scientist will be able to date your remains based on your carbon 14 content. By the way, be careful not to eat your smoke detector either, its way more hazardous.

  4. “Environmental win”
    No, I highly doubt that. You’d increase the risk of contamination by digging through radioactive waste for the teeeeny tiny bit of carbon-14 you’d end up using. Nuclear waste is really not a big problem, just put it deep deep underground and leave it alone. Digging it up, opening it, recycling a microgram of carbon-14 and putting it back is not environmentally friendly, but of course it’s sold as that because nearly everything with that label is an utter scam that secretly does the opposite.

    1. Exactly, there are much easier ways to get C14. Like just about any organic waste like corn stalks, wood chips, sea water, algae, people, cats, dogs, cows, leaves, etc. Anyone discussing renewable energy and not talking nuclear is completely ignoring the cleanest form of constant baseline power available. You should also schedule a visit to a shutdown nuclear plant and take a look at the total volume of waste left. I have seen the remains of the Zion nuclear power station and the amount of physical waste compared to the power produced (with zero greenhouse gas emissions during operation) is astounding. That was with 60s technology, newer plants would produce much less.

  5. Nice, the radioactive material is embedded in diamond, so the usual decay doesn’t happen, so no shielding required. Add this with the new reactor designs running on recycled waste pellets and we’ve got a shot at not leaving the waste underground for hundreds of thousands of years to be forgotten or leaked and without any real clean up plan

    1. That stuff is more safe underground than above ground, even if it leaks. Even if it leaks, nobody is going to be in contact with it (except some poor unfortunate future explorer, who rediscovers it after the knowledge about it has long been forgotten).

      Provided that it doesn’t have a chance to get into our water supply, of course.

      1. Everyone worried about nuclear waste should look into vitrification technology. USDOE is using it right now to clean up the Hanford site. Very promising, very stable, very storable, nonsoluble.

  6. Given the self discharge rate of supercaps is rather high, and the power output of this battery is rather low…

    Does a radioactive supercap in the forest ever get charged?

    1. Its important to throw out as many tech buzzwords as possible to sound credible. Like graphene, supercap, and diamond which are so much more sexy than good old carbon 14. BTW any capacitor with low leakge would be better. This thing is never going to produce enough power to require the discharge rate of a supercapacitor which is what they are good at. In fact it is probably best to use this to trickle charge a chemical battery which has less leakage than almost any capacitor.

    1. pretty much, sounds like it is… “They’re using a thin layer of vapour-deposited carbon-14” If they call it diamond, it sounds fancy and they can charge more.

  7. There may be many useful applications even at low currents. What if they could be used in a new type of memory technology. For instance use it to keep a new type of RAM cell charged. Now you can have a storage device similar to a SSD that never wears out.

      1. No one needs a memory technology that lasts that long. We tend to obsolete RAM tech about every 10 years. In 1000 years no one will know what a USB stick or an SSD is.

  8. Brings back memories of the “litrospheres” idea that was featured in Popular Science, then promptly buried…
    Similar to a tritium vial, they’re a small amount of tritium (radioactive hydrogen; a byproduct of nuclear reactors) and phosphor safely contained in a tiny glass bead, which would glow for ~12 years. Besides providing electricity-free light for signage, LCD backlights, etc., if they were embedded in plastic sheets and said sheets alternated in a stack with thin film photovoltaic cells, these would have resulted in radiophotovoltaic cells that would provide (useful, but steadily decreasing amounts of) electricity, non-stop, for a decade.

    1. If you are close enough to a burning diamond to directly breathe the smoke you have more pressing problems to deal with. If the smoke just releases to the atmosphere is,would be just like the forest fires, camp fires, your gas furnace, your grill, and your car which are all releasing carbon 14 all the time.

  9. Why not use a beta gamma emitter, use beta to strike fluorescent material and use a special solar array tuned for that wavelength, and also in theory you should get more energy per Sq cm of solar panel using uv and gamma rays, so efficiency would go up

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