Nuclear waste from nuclear power plants is a huge problem for humanity. In current practice, although it is produced in industrial quantities, it is also stored at huge cost, usually in bunker-like underground reinforced concrete sarcophagi. A company is now producing batteries from this hazardous waste to be used in all kinds of vehicles, cars, electric aircraft, etc.
The innovation comes from the Californian company NDB, promising tiny nuclear generators that could revolutionise the energy sector. According to the company, their batteries will have a lifespan of between ten and 28,000 (!) years, during which time they will never need to be recharged, offering a higher energy density than lithium-ion technology. They are also non-hazardous and virtually indestructible in the event of an accident, while they can be produced much more cheaply as batteries for vehicles, for example, than lithium-ion systems currently in use.
The new technology uses tiny pieces of recycled nuclear waste derived from graphite damping rods found in nuclear reactors. During operation, they regulate the chain reaction and can be used to control the power output or shut down the reactor. Basically, they absorb the radiation from the nuclear fuel rods and become highly radioactive themselves. The graphite rod is rich in carbon-14 isotopes, which are converted to nitrogen during beta decay, releasing an anti-neutrino and a beta decay electron. The company uses these graphite rods to produce tiny carbon-14 diamonds after refining. The diamond acts as both a semiconductor and a heat sink, collecting and discharging charge. And here’s the trick.
The carbon-14 diamond is completely encapsulated by a non-radioactive, inexpensive, lab-created carbon-12 diamond that collects charged particles, prevents radioactive leakage and forms a super-hard protective and damage-resistant layer. But a battery needs more than that. They are placed in multiple layers inside a tiny integrated circuit (IC) chip, together with a supercapacitor that collects, stores and releases the available charge when discharged. The company claims that the technology can meet AA, AAA, 18650, 2170 or any other standard. The product may be made even cheaper by the fact that some nuclear waste repositories would be willing to pay NDB to take the graphite rods from them as feedstock.
Such a chip is said to emit less environmental radiation than the human body, and its small size would allow it to power pacemakers or other implants (Neuralink ?), which could make today’s surgical intervention unnecessary if the batteries run down. Of course, the system could also supply printed circuit boards with the necessary power by soldering the necessary amount of chips to the board. NDB’s Neel Naicker says: “Think of an iPhone. With the same size battery as the one inside, it would charge the battery from zero to full five times an hour. Imagine that.”
“Imagine a world where you wouldn’t have to charge the battery at all in a day. Now imagine a week, a month… What if we talked about decades? We can create that with this technology.”
The company promises that the technology could even be installed in electric vehicles, or scaled up to even larger scales, whether in planes or aircraft. If it all really works, it could be something you take out of an old vehicle and put into a new one. When a cell fails, the active nano diamond component can be reused in another cell and when they reach the end of their lifetime, which can be 28,000 years for a low-power sensor, for example on board satellites, all that is left is harmless waste. Dr. John Shawe-Taylor, President of UNESCO and Professor at University College London, said, “The NDB has the potential to solve the major global problem of carbon emissions in one fell swoop, without the expensive infrastructure projects, without the cost of transporting energy.”
“The technology’s ability to provide energy over long periods of time without recharging, refuelling or servicing puts them in an ideal position to meet the world’s energy needs through a distributed solution with near-zero environmental impact and energy transport costs.”
The company claims to have “proof of concept” equipment available and are ready to start building a commercial prototype as soon as the labs reopen once the Covid-19 epidemic has passed. A low-performance commercial version is expected to be on the market in less than two years, with a high-performance version expected in five years.