Nuclear battery technology was first demonstrated by Henry Moseley in 1913, which he called the Beta Cell. The technology received considerable research attention for applications requiring long-life power sources for space needs during the 50s and 60s. Over the years many types and methods have been developed. The scientific principles are well known, but the problem has always been their size, making them only suitable for spacecraft and remote scientific stations. However, with the drive towards mobility and ‘greener’ forms of locomotion attention has turned to developing ever more efficient batteries.
Jae Kwon, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Missouri, and his team, have developed a nuclear battery which he claims will provides no less than a million times more charge than any “normal” battery. The scale of the device can be seen in the picture, but the commercial versions will be much smaller, possibly thinner than a human hair. The drastic reduction in scale is an attempt to scale down power sources for the tiny devices that fall under the category of micro- and nano-electromechanical systems (Mems and Nems). They are an attractive proposition for many applications, because the isotopes that power them can provide a useful amount of current for phenomenally long times – up to hundreds of years or more.
The term ‘nuclear’ is an emotive word, as the technology does not involve any chain reaction. In actual fact the technology is not too removed from the technology used in pace-makers. The nuclear battery would bring a solution based on a liquid semiconductor (rather than a solid semiconductor) that will produce a much longer lifetime for the battery. The high energies means that solid semiconductors suffer damage over time from the radioactive elements used by other types of batteries. The battery becomes less efficient over time, therefore its requirement to be large and over engineered. However, the liquid semiconductor used by the team is quite resistant to these attacks. If successful one can imagine a scenario where one buys a device from a shop, there is no need to ever re-charge the battery, and indeed the battery may outlive the device itself.