A long-lasting, water-based nuclear-energy-powered battery

Could be used in cars, emergency devices, and spaceships
September 19, 2014

Schematic diagram of the Platinum/titanium dioxide electrode in the new nuclear-powered battery design (credit: Baek Hyun Kim & Jae W. Kwon/Scientific Reports)

University of Missouri (MU) researchers have developed a prototype of an efficient nuclear-energy-powered* battery that does not require recharging and could be a reliable energy source in automobiles and space vehicles.

Betavoltaics [a battery technology that generates electrical power from beta-particle radiation] has been studied as an energy source since the 1950s,” said Jae W. Kwon, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and nuclear engineering in the College of Engineering at MU.

However, the existing solid-state designs are limited by the radiation damage to semiconductors and the subsequent performance degradation, he said.

Kwon’s solution is a water-based battery. As in nuclear reactors, water efficiently absorbs large amounts of nuclear energy, generating free radicals. His design uses a strontium-90 radioactive isotope, which generates electrochemical energy in water. A nanostructured titanium dioxide electrode with a platinum coating collects and converts the electrochemical energy into electrons.

“Water acts as a buffer and surface plasmons created in the device turned out to be very useful in increasing its efficiency,” Kwon said. “The ionic solution is not easily frozen at very low temperatures and could work in a wide variety of applications, including car batteries and, if packaged properly, perhaps spacecraft.”

The research was published in Nature (open access).

* Kwon assures us that “controlled nuclear technologies are not inherently dangerous. We already have many commercial uses of nuclear technologies in our lives, including fire detectors in bedrooms and emergency exit signs in buildings.”

Abstract of Scientific Reports paper

The field of conventional energy conversion using radioisotopes has almost exclusively focused on solid-state materials. Herein, we demonstrate that liquids can be an excellent media for effective energy conversion from radioisotopes. We also show that free radicals in liquid, which are continuously generated by beta radiation, can be utilized for electrical energy generation. Under beta radiation, surface plasmon obtained by the metallic nanoporous structures on TiO2 enhanced the radiolytic conversion via the efficient energy transfer between plasmons and free radicals. This work introduces a new route for the development of next-generation power sources.