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Could Diamond Batteries Be the Solution to Our Nuclear Waste Problem?

We may have found a non-hazardous solution for the growing nuclear waste issue.

Nuclear (or radioactive) waste is the collective result of nuclear reactors, fuel processing plants, hospitals, and research facilities that is usually dangerous for the environment and human health. 

And while there are ways to store and dispose of nuclear waste, they're not always low-cost and/or green options. However, turning them into diamond batteries could actually serve as a great, non-hazardous alternative for the time being.  

In 2016, geochemists from the U.K. developed a way to take the dangerous nuclear waste and turn it into artificial diamonds. These diamonds can generate their own electric current. With a half-life of nearly 5,800 years, these potential diamond batteries could offer solutions to both waste and energy issues.

"There are no moving parts involved, no emissions generated, and no maintenance required, just direct electricity generation," said Tom Scott from the University of Bristol. Scott's team effectively turns a long-term problem of nuclear byproduct into a long-term solution for clean energy.

The team demonstrated a prototype diamond battery that uses nickel-63 (an unstable isotope) as its radiation source.

Nickel-63's half-life is roughly 100 years. Thus, the prototype holds 50 percent of its electrical charge 100 years later.

Now that the team knows nickel-63 can work, they're looking to take on the piles of Britain's nuclear waste. Between the 1950s to the 1970s, the UK's Magnox reactors used graphite to sustain nuclear reactions. However, the process made the graphite itself unstable as carbon-14. Though the country retired Magnox in 2015, the waste remains. Over 95,000 tonnes still needed to be safely stored and monitored. The half-life of 5,730 years means it will be stored for a long time if no other option can be found.

"Carbon–14 was chosen as a source material because it emits a short-range radiation, which is quickly absorbed by any solid material," said researcher Neil Fox. Fox added:

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"This would make it dangerous to ingest or touch with your naked skin, but safely held within diamond, no short-range radiation can escape. In fact, diamond is the hardest substance known to man, there is literally nothing we could use that could offer more protection."

The batteries themselves wouldn't be used for high-power projects, however. Scott said the best would be "in situations where it is not feasible to charge or replace conventional batteries."

"Obvious applications would be in low-power electrical devices where long life of the energy source is needed, such as pacemakers, satellites, high-altitude drones, or even spacecraft," he said.

"An alkaline AA battery weighs about 20 grams, has an energy density storage rating of 700 Joules/gram, and [uses] up this energy if operated continuously for about 24 hours," Scott said in an interview with Digital Trends. "A diamond beta-battery containing 1 gram of C14 will deliver 15 Joules per day, and will continue to produce this level of output for 5,730 years — so its total energy storage rating is 2.7 TeraJ."

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But that's not all.

In September 2021, a San Francisco–based startup Nano Diamond Battery (NDB) created a potentially revolutionary battery by combining nanodiamonds created with chemical vapor deposition, a process where extremely high-temperature gases force carbon to crystallize on a substrate material, with radioactive isotopes from nuclear waste. 

The company's claim is that these newly developed batteries could last 28,000 years. If successful, they could be used to power LED displays on tablets to smartphones all around the world. And as its first commercial product, NDB is reportedly working on introducing a smartwatch in 2022.

Repurposing the waste nuclear material and putting it to good use could turn out to be a resourceful and maybe even a "near-infinite" energy source. And by that, we're talking about thousands of tonnes of radioactive material that could be used to power all kinds of electronics from pacemakers to spacecraft. 

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