Like many industrialized countries, in the period after the Second World War the United Kingdom made significant investments in the field of nuclear reactors. British taxpayers paid for reactors for research, the military, and for nuclear power.
Many decades later that early crop of reactors has now largely been decommissioned. Power too cheap to meter turned into multi-billion pound bills for safely coping with the challenges posed by many different types of radioactive waste generated by the dismantling of a nuclear reactor, and as the nuclear industry has made that journey it in turn has spawned a host of research projects based on the products of the decommissioning work.
One such project has been presented by a team at Bristol University; their work is on the property of diamonds in generating a small electrical current when exposed to radioactive emissions. Unfortunately their press release and video does not explain the mechanism involved and our Google-fu has failed to deliver, but if we were to hazard a guess we’d ask them questions about whether the radioactivity changes the work function required to release electrons from the diamond, allowing the electricity to be harvested through a contact potential difference. Perhaps our physicist readers can enlighten us in the comments.
So far their prototype uses a nickel-63 source, but they hope to instead take carbon-14 from the huge number of stockpiled graphite blocks from old reactors, and use it to create radioactive diamonds that require no external source. Since the output of the resulting cells will be in proportion to their radioactivity their life will be in the same order of their radioactive half-life. 5730 years for half-capacity in the case of carbon-14.
Of course, it is likely that the yield of electricity will not be high, with tiny voltages and currents this may not represent a free energy miracle. But it will be of considerable interest to the designers of ultra-low-maintenance long-life electronics for science, the space industry, and medical implants.
We’ve put their video below the break. It’s a straightforward explanation of the project, though sadly since it’s aimed at the general public it’s a little short on some of the technical details. Still, it’s one to watch.