Well, possibly

Imagine a nuclear battery in a little box that uses decaying isotopes to generate cheap and clean electricity around the clock for decades with no combustion, fission, or noise. It just sits silently and emits constant power.

This far-fetched idea is becoming real. Vaulting advances in materials sciences are unlocking technologies that radically change the cost calculus of radioisotopes. Companies are springing to life with prototypes that could be on the market before the next general election.

As it happens, the UK is the world leader in the rarified field of isotope batteries. A British-Australian start-up with research operations in Cumbria has found a way to harness gamma rays from the radioactive decay of cobalt-60. Infinite Power thinks it can cut costs to levels that take your breath away. “It is the cheapest source of electricity on the planet,” says Robert McLeod, the chief executive.

I can’t actually imagine anyone allowing dispersed C-60 floating around the countryside.

We have had the occasional incident where a piece – from a cancer treatment machine – ends up in a scrap yard and kills people. It’s a gamma ray emitter which is why we use it as the radiation source to burn up cancers, also what makes the battery work. Whether it’s actually a good idea or not it’s just not gonna happen – public opinion just isn’t going to allow it in car battery chargers which is one of the suggested uses.

24 thoughts on “Well, possibly”

  1. Bloke in China (Germany province)

    Public opinion? The public is only ever consulted, once every few years, on which group of leftists should be running the show. I.e. how quickly and completely we will ban cars, planes, red meat, human interaction, everything that makes life worth living.

  2. “…for decades with no combustion, fission, or noise.”

    No fission? what do they think radioactive decay is? It’s the fission that makes all those lovely gamma rays.

  3. Tom, strictly speaking, no. Those isotopes undergo radioactive decay, typically (for lighter isotopes) emitting either an electron or a positron (or indulge in electron capture); so a neutron turns into a proton plus an electron or a proton turns into a neutron plus a positron (roughly speaking in the one sentence explanation !). This will either generate the gamma from the positron elimination or the decay product has excess energy that is removed via radiation of the gamma variety. At the heavy end of the spectrum you also get alpha emission.

    Fission is where an element “splits” into two lighter and distinct elements, usually accompanied by a number of now excess neutrons, gamma radiation etc. So strictly speaking, no fission.

    Presumably this radiation is absorbed locally generating heat and that heat is then turned into electricity.

  4. Co60 doesn’t fission. That is a process where a few favoured isotopes of heavy elements split into roughly equal parts. Co60 emits an electron (beta decay), turning into Ni60. The Ni nucleus is in an excited state & emits one or two gamma rays (photons) to get to the ground state. Most radioactivity is not fission, but chucking out an electron or a helium nucleus to turn into another element close by in the periodic table.

  5. A lot of the “science” in the article is bollocks.

    “The normal vibration process in solar cells instead converts beta, X-ray, and above all gamma waves from cobalt-60 into electricity.”

    Solar cells don’t work by vibration and hitting a PV cell with gamma radiation is simply going to trash it.

    The Infinite Power web site seems dodgy to me as well – no physicist talks of “energy waves from Radioisotope” and the Sun’s light doesn’t contain beta radiation, and very little gamma radiation (or we’d be fried).

    The patent mentioned seems at a quick glance to be for a specific manufacturing technique for a betavoltaic cell (an old 1970s technology that’s useful in low power, long life situations) and explicitly mentions use with beta emitting radioisotopes as energy sources. There is no mention of any other sort of radiation being used, nor does the patent suggest that it works like a solar cell. (But then again patents have their own language.)

    So, on one hand there is what looks like a workable but fairly boring patent for a betavoltaic cell. Nothing that’s going to set the world on fire.

    On the other hand you have a company talking about radioactive materials that aren’t suitable for powering a betavoltaic cell and making claims that its invention is going to help save the world by producing vast quantities of power with no CO₂ emissions using radioactive waste, thus triggering two Green concerns in one. Their media pack has all the usual stuff about “disruptive technologies” but is mostly content free. Oh, and I think they’re looking for investors.

  6. I get the feeling that the last thing that green types want is something that actually works. It doesn’t sound as though this is it, but if someone did discover a source of clean green energy they would do everything in their power to stop it being used.

  7. Bloke in China (Germany province)

    Mandarin?

    I speak about 12 words of Cantonese, and half of those are English loanwords.

    Here I speak the local variant of Chinese (Chinese: Germany Province Version 1.0), which has had three genders for over 400 years, way ahead of its time.

  8. “…which has had three genders for over 400 years, way ahead of its time.”

    So, unlike the UK/ US where we’ve had 400 genders for 3 years?

  9. And from where do these magical isotopes come from?

    You make them, in a nuclear fission reactor. Lots of fission, lots of high level waste.
    And the neutron flux so absorbed could have been used for power generation directly, so it’s a very very wasteful way of generating customer-usable energy from fissioning U235.
    Cannot do this directly in a fast breeder: you need the neutrons there for the breeding of U233 or P239.
    So its a blind alley.
    Justifiable for a $bn space probe, just about. Anywhere else, check your wallet: scammers about.

    NB If you cannot see the high level nuclear waste, does it still exist?
    Just asking for information, since Tesla cars and coal-fired power stations seem to work this way.

  10. The bit where I stopped believing was the word “clean” when discussing something emitting gamma rays. Someone is taking the mickey.

  11. The question is how are gamma rays turned into electricity?

    Don’t these batteries work on the thermoelectric principle? Heat generated from the decay acts on thermocouples to produce small currents but for very long periods. I don’t think this is ‘new’ having been used in satellites for a while.

    Such batteries would need very heavy, virtually bomb-proof casing if used in general use. Then there is a disposal problem, once their working life is over, they would need to be stored for very long periods. These factors would make them very expensive and with limited application.

    Anecdote: lead-rubber is used in protective wear for radiation workers such as those in X-ray departments. Some years ago scrap lead salvaged from a scrapyard was bought from a Third World source. A scrapped Cobalt radiotherapy unit plus source had found its way into the yard, the source scattered and contaminated the scrap lead. The lead subsequently found its way into protective garments. It was discovered when activity recorded on radiation monitors could not be explained. Eventually the source was identified as the protective apparel itself. It was gamma activity and very low but when worn close to the body daily for long periods was not desirable.

    Large scale recall of product, tons of lead rubber had to be scrapped.

  12. So Much For Subtlety

    Tim the Coder February 8, 2021 at 10:53 am – “And the neutron flux so absorbed could have been used for power generation directly, so it’s a very very wasteful way of generating customer-usable energy from fissioning U235.”

    Unless it is coming from the daughter products of the fission of U-235 itself. Then it is a product of the energy generation and not taking anything away from it.

    Myself, I would consider a cubic metre block of fission products – not transuranics – in the basement. Definitely cut my heating bills. In two hundred years or so it would be about the same as granite.

    john77 February 8, 2021 at 11:19 am – “The bit where I stopped believing was the word “clean” when discussing something emitting gamma rays. Someone is taking the mickey.”

    I don’t know. I think anything in the immediate vicinity of a large gamma emitter is probably quite clean. At least not a lot of bacterial activity. That is the main use for gamma emitters these days – food safety.

    I just don’t know of any gamma emitters I would be happy to sit near. Well apart from some natural rocks.

  13. Wasn’t Ambrose pitching thorium reactors of some description a few years ago? I wonder how that’s coming along.

  14. @SMFS
    “Unless it is coming from the daughter products of the fission of U-235 itself”

    If you mean the desired radio-isotope is a direct fission product, then agreed. But separating it from the horrible soup of other, randomly generated, fission products is a nightmare. Not done.
    If you mean ‘by using the neutron emission of fission products’ then this is all part of the reactors criticality, and indeed, these ‘delayed neutrons’ are vital to making a reactor controllable. (Prompt criticality is a bomb, the difference in a reactor is that prompt neutrons are kept under the threshold, with the delayed neutrons from fission products keeping things ticking over with nice slow time lags: so you cannot use those neutrons twice!)

    For making radioisotopes you insert special sealed canisters of the desired feed material into the neutron flux, so you only have to separate the desired stuff from the source feed element: not 50 other associated elements of fission gunk.

    And as others have commented, you use the low grade heat to power thermopiles to generate electricity. Perhaps they are claiming some semiconductor improvement to those thermopiles from solar cell technology, but direct conversion of gamma rays is with superman, alas.

  15. So Much For Subtlety

    Tim the Coder February 8, 2021 at 12:08 pm – “If you mean the desired radio-isotope is a direct fission product, then agreed. But separating it from the horrible soup of other, randomly generated, fission products is a nightmare. Not done.”

    I don’t know about a nightmare. It is, in theory, a simple chemical reaction. Compared to separating isotopes, separating elements is a doddle. It is just that the highly radioactive fuel is dissolved in an acidic soup. Not easy to work with. But it could be done. A thorium-type liquid-salt reactor might even make it easy.

    “And as others have commented, you use the low grade heat to power thermopiles to generate electricity.”

    We do now. Not much outside the space programme, but it happens. The Soviet Union was bigger on them and they left dozens across the countryside no one has seen for forty years or more. But that is not all they can be. Is it possible to more directly convert beta and even alpha particles into electricity? Theoretically. A beta particle is just an electron after all. I guess you could shoot an alpha particle down a magnetic field if you had enough of them.

    I would keep away from anything that emitted gamma rays but as I said, the best use of fission products is probably to put them into a large ceramic block and place it in your basement. It would heat the house nicely. And it wouldn’t pose a huge health problem.

  16. I’ve just RTFA.

    Evans-Pritchard is a bit of an idiot, judging by other stuff of his I’ve seen. I just wonder if he has completely misunderstood (not unlikely) or whether Infinite Power are having a giraffe.

    Thermoelectric generators use alpha particle emitters. These travel only microns in most solid materials, so the kinetic energy is dumped quickly and heats up the material nicely. Gamma radiation goes for miles, if you let it. Even in lead the half-power absorption length is in the millimeter range so the energy absorption is much more spread out.

    Alpha emitters are easier to handle – a thin inert metal shell round the material will stop them all. As we know, gamma emitters are bastards to handle and I can’t believe they would pass regulatory scrutiny for general use.

    I was going to number the paras but the unesteemed resident of Ely has rather poisoned that style!

  17. Interesting fact. Pacemakers are generally made with lithium batteries but until the mid 80’s when batteries became good enough some where made with a nuclear power source. In 2015 and quite probably even now there were some people in the US still working around these Plutonium power sources inside them.

  18. I call bogus for a simple reason:

    If their magic P-N junction exists, it must be something that can be produced relatively cheap and in bulk to make the amount of batteries needed for the applications they envision.

    This would mean they’d have created a new, cheap, effective material to shield anything from gamma in the low MeV range.
    This would have made some waves here and there well before anyone even thinks about using it for batteries… That’s Nobel territory..
    Where are the patents and publications?

  19. Chernyy Drakon said:
    “Not C-60 which is Buckminsterfullerene”

    Isn’t that the stuff made by monks that teenage chavs drink?

  20. A quick glance at Kilopower shows that NASA started this one in 2015. It uses a Stirling engine instead of thermoelectric power to give greater efficiency.

    If such a colossal breakthrough as using ‘solar’ cells to generate power from gamma rays had occurred, surely NASA would have used it. I therefore agree with Grikath. It’s nonsense.

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