The Holy Grail of battery technology is a cell which lasts forever, a fit-and-forget device that never needs replacing. It may seem a pipe-dream, but University of Bristol researchers have come pretty close. The catch? Their battery lasts a very long time, but it generates micropower, and it’s radioactive.
They’re using a thin layer of vapour-deposited carbon-14 diamond both as a source of beta radiation, and as a semiconductor material which harvests those electrons. They’re expected to be used for applications such as intermittent sensors, where they would slowly charge a supercapacitor which could release useful amounts of power in short bursts.
It’s being touted as an environmental win because the carbon-14 is sourced from radioactive waste, but against that it’s not unreasonable to have a concern about the things being radioactive. The company commercializing the tech leads with the bold question: “What would you do with a power-cell that outlasts the device it powers?“, to which we would hope the answer won’t be “Throw it away to be a piece of orphaned radioactive waste in the environment when the device it powers is outlasted”. We’ll have to wait and see whether devices containing these things turn up on the surplus market in a couple of decades.
Fortunately the carbon-14 lives not in cartoonish vats of radioactive green slime but safely locked away in diamond, about the safest medium for it to be in. The prototype devices are also tiny, so we’re guessing that the quantity of carbon-14 involved is also small enough to not be a problem. We’re curious though whether they could become a valuable enough commodity to be reused and recycled in themselves, after all something that supplies energy for decades could power several different devices over its lifetime. Either way, it’s a major improvement over a tritium cell.