back to article Coin-sized nuclear isotope battery minted

A boffin in Missouri has invented a nuclear-powered battery the size of a penny. Professor Jae Kwon believes that radioisotope batteries can hold a million times as much juice as today's chemical types, perhaps offering the potential for devices like torches and cellphones which would never run flat. The sulphur-isotope …

COMMENTS

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  1. Rosco
    Thumb Up

    Whoa

    I say again - whoa!

  2. Steve Evans
    Headmaster

    Hmmm...

    Silly Americans, that's a one cent, not a penny... Does it have the word penny or pence written on it? No... Now go and find your own names for things and stop nicking ours!

    You know you can do it... You managed it with popsickle (*sniggers*)

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    No more nuclear waste?

    Use nuclear waste to power it, is it possible?

  4. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Coat

    I think something like this powers certains ejection seat systems

    Some of the more complex ones (IIRC Eurofighter and some of the Russian designs) have a microprocessor to run all the pyrotechnic actuator chains. This is run by trickle charging a capacitor from a beta emitting source.

    However the liquid semicondotur idea does sound new and a very neat way to sidestep the whole radiationi damage to the perfect Silicon crystal lattice. problem.

    NB The ones I've heard of are *very* low current. They score when you want very lightweight (rules out thermal batteries), fairly small but instant on power after 10+ years on standby.

    Mine will be the copy of the Batteries Handbook in it.

  5. Jolyon Ralph
    Thumb Up

    Exploding phone batteries

    could be even more dramatic.

    I can't wait

  6. Dethen
    FAIL

    Re: Hmmm...

    Actually, that's a dime- or 10 cents. Nice try though!

  7. Richard Pennington 1
    Boffin

    Going flat before its time

    The picture in the article has a hidden title (mouse over to see it) which identified the power source as an isotope of sulphur. The longest-lasting radioactive isotope of sulphur is sulphur-35, whose half-life is about 88 days. So the power source is cut in half every 88 days, i.e. it drops by a factor of about 16 every year. So it is not going to last even a few years, let alone thousands of years.

    Try other elements with longer half-lives, and it might just work.

  8. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    A cell battery lasting a month?

    Not really long enough, if the life of the product is roughly 2 -3 years.

    Plus the issue is if the battery can be recycled to cut down on waste.

    Definitely a good thing!

    Oh and Steve Evans... An American penny is 1 cent. But just because the Brits have a penny or pence, doesn't mean that its the only currency that can use that name. Take the dollar. There's the USD, Australian Dollar, Zimbabwe Dollar (worth much less than your penny) etc ...

  9. Murray Pearson 1

    @Steve Evans

    It's not a penny OR a one-cent; it's a dime in the photo.

    We Canadians are way ahead here, as the pictured nuclear cell would be around the size of a Canadian $1 coin, which is known as a "loonie". That's far more appropriate!

  10. Tim 30
    Thumb Up

    Great power source but what will it cost?

    Will it be Dollars, Cents, pennies or pence.

    BTW Ian Gumby, I think that other countries using 'Dollars' of their own shows a distinct lack of imagination on their part or some kind of sycophancy.

  11. RobE
    Go

    Guarantees extended?

    If you can create a battery that "never needs its batteries replacing", would that mean it would be guaranteed for longer than the usual 1 yr? (excluding bulbs)

  12. Smifter

    Battery Manufacturers

    Sounds like a good idea but not something the battery manufacturers would like. What's the chances of it getting buried before ever becoming commercial reality?

  13. Mike Moyle Silver badge
    Boffin

    @Steve Evans

    "Silly Americans, that's a one cent, not a penny... "

    Actually, silly Britisher person, that's a dime -- a ten-cent piece -- which is slightly smaller in diameter than a penny. The face shown is clearly Franklin Roosevelt, instead of Abraham Lincoln.

    ...And, if one wanted to get pedantic, one might point out that the term "penny" (Old English penning) is related to the Old High German pfenning -- meaning, simply,, a coin, without reference to its value. Thus, I don't see where we are any less justified in using the name than is a nation who changed the very definition of the the term from 1/240th of a pound to 1/100th. I mean, technically, there is really no relation between the original meaning of the English penny with the current British penny except for tradition, is there?

    Oh... and there's no "k" in "Popsicle®" -- It's like "icicle", that way. <insert grin here>

  14. MartinLee
    FAIL

    @Tim 30

    The dollar of course being originally used to describe a Spanish 15th Century coin, the name being borrowed from a German name of a similarly shaped coin.

    It's not an American word.

  15. Ian 54
    Happy

    if we can move away from the numismatics

    I was amused that the new battery is "smaller and less complex than a full-blown nuclear reactor."

    firstly I thought, "well obviously it is!", then I thought "I don't want my nuclear reactors fully blown!"

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Tim 30 @MartinLee

    The dollar was actually invented by the Aztecs, it was thier name for banana and they traded bananas for gunpowder with the Spanish, who subsquently nicked the name dollar - cheeky blighters.

    The word penny was first coined (excuse the pun) in 1136 in a small town near naples (I forget the name now). A penny was a fish shaped stone that girls would give to thier guys and say "a penny for your thoughts" - or the equivalent of that in 12th century Italian.

    ... and now back to the story...

  17. Steve Evans

    Well...

    The author did say "Penny", and not being an authority on embossed dead US presidents I let him lead me astray!

    Okay, you can have the name penny for your one cent, please look after it carefully... We won't be needing it when our glorious leaders (sorry, I mean representatives of the people) finish selling us up the river (The Seine or Rhine probably) and inflict the Euro on us.

  18. RTNavy
    Megaphone

    Storage

    I wouldn't keep the battery in pants pocket if I were you!

  19. Hungry Sean
    Boffin

    what's the use case?

    I have a hard time seeing these finding their way into cell-phones and flashlights. Seems like they would not be rechargeable, would not store well (Richard Pennington above says the half life is only 60 days), and would possibly be even more of a pain to legally dispose of than current batteries. But, a power unit thinner than a human hair seems like it could have all sorts of cool futuristic applications-- possibly even woven into e-textiles? Smart-dust? Active RFID?

    by the way, what do you Brits call Popsicles?

    -sean

  20. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Fire

    But how much extra thickness will you need to make these things fireproof? At the moment a burning battery is nasty but not likely to contaminate a large area - with these - eek!

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Hungry Sean

    Freezepop or Ice-pole http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pop_%28frozen_snack%29

  22. Martin 6 Silver badge

    @Matt 89

    Dollar is from the German word for valley (thal) it's orginally from Jochimsthal a valley with a lot of silver mines in the middle ages.

    Anyway back to the physics. Energy densities for some new direct conversion nuclear batteries are pretty good - compared to the old radio-thermal ones but are still a few orders of magnitude off anything that would run a cell phone never mind a laptop.

    Best power density is less than a hamster on treadmill - which is another possible alternative for netbooks?

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Happy

    @Matt 89

    "I mean, technically, there is really no relation between the original meaning of the English penny with the current British penny except for tradition, is there?"

    Well you're almost right.

    The current British penny is actually properly called a "new penny" post decimalisation as to distinguish it from the "old penny". From memory (and I may be wrong here), the current British coinage does use the term "New Pence" when refering to its value.

    Here in Canada, they do use the term "penny" when refering to the one-cent piece also, but it's used by and large as a slang term, like "buck" or "loonie" for dollar (loonie not because it is insane or anything, but because of the picture of the loon duck on it.)

  24. Aunty Dan
    Unhappy

    What happens once it hasrun out of atomic juice?

    So if they make this thing to be able to run your cellphone for a few months at a reasonable price point I can see people buying it for the convenience factor. However what happens once they run flat? Presumably the active chemical components can't be replaced or recharged, it would have to be a sealed system for safety.

    So are we going to have an archeological layer of landfill full of even more toxic batteries on top of our currently growing layer of nickel cadmium?

    Plus, given no one can figure out if cellphones and associated ray-blasting Bluetooth devices are even safe, do you really want to be holding a mini-nuke to your ear all day long?

  25. Richard 12 Silver badge

    @Hungry Sean

    A Popsicle would be an "Ice Lolly", formerly popularly known as "Ices", now generally known as a "Lolly", plural Lollies.

    Not to be confused with "Lolly", meaning negotiable currency, or "Lollipop" meaning hard sugar confectionery on a stick.

  26. John Sanders
    Flame

    Nuclear batteries a penny...

    Honestly who the hell cares about the name of the coin past the first post, the point is that it is small and the important thing besides the size is that uses something different than chemical reaction.

    What type of isotope?

    Beta or Alpha emitter?

    How long until we can have one that produces 1.5 volts, a decade? 5 years?

    Is it dangerous as waste?

    As somebody else asked, can you produce them using existing nuclear waste?

    etc.

    People with two or more neurons in work condition do not care about the bloody coin, got lots on my pocket (blame candy dispensers) and they're called f****** small change.

  27. Brutus
    Joke

    @ Hungry Sean

    What is a popsicle? If you can describe it, i can probably tell you what we call it. Unless it's something like CheeseWizz, in which case it has the generic name of 'crap' ;-)

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    @Hungry Sean

    "by the way, what do you Brits call Popsicles?"

    Ice lollies.

  29. Simon Lacey

    re: what's the use case?

    "by the way, what do you Brits call Popsicles?"

    'Ice lolly' or just 'lolly'. In a bizarre case of coin related symmetry, 'lolly' was once a popular colloquialism for 'money'.

  30. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    WTF?

    With all the authority of the Interwebs

    "The dollar was actually invented by the Aztec"

    LOLWUT.

    "Penny was first coined (excuse the pun) in 1136 in a small town near naples"

    Because "penny" rolls off the tongue in Italian.

    "... and now back to the story..."

    Yes. PLEASE.

  31. Jason Togneri

    @Hungry Sean

    We call them "ice lollies" - singular form is "ice lolly".

    @Half-life: do you people understand what a half-life is? A source with a half-life of 60 days doesn't mean that it will last 60 days. It means that after each cycle of 60 days, its remaining TTL will be halved. In other words, on day 1 it will have 100% charge. On day 60, it will have 50% charge. On day 120, it will have 25% charge. On day 180, it will have 12.5% charge. And so on. Assuming it only needs charged or replaced when it reaches 3.125% charge remaining, it will have lasted five cycles of its half-life - 5*60 = 300 days. That's most of a year for a device with a half-life of "only" 60 days. Better than your average Nokia battery.

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Hungry Sean

    Ice pops.

  33. Jason Togneri
    Boffin

    More science

    For anyone who's interested, I couldn't find mention in any of the linked articles of which particular isotope of suphur was being used, but it's most probably 35S: http://nucleardata.nuclear.lu.se/nucleardata/toi/nuclide.asp?iZA=160035 (click on the bottom button, "Level scheme", and you'll see it has a very simple decay).

  34. 4HiMarks
    Pint

    @Hungry Sean

    I think the Brits call popsicles "ice lollies". Both terms seem to be derived from lollypop, just from opposite ends. I guess we could theoretically also have lollycicles or icepops, which would actually make more sense when you think about it.

    Beer, because it's cold too (in America, anyway.)

  35. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wireless Lamps?

    Could this lead to light bulbs with batteries integrated in the base, meaning you don't need a wire for your lamps?

  36. King Jack
    Happy

    Popsicles = Lollypops

    Popsicles = Lollypops or lollies

  37. SynnerCal
    Flame

    Nuclear battery - don't let Sony do it

    Seriously, get someone other than Sony to do this - exploding LiON batteries is bad enough, so just think of the havoc caused if one of these nuke cells went critical. Or even split, don't like the idea of a radioactive material dripped on the old fixtures and fittings, not to say one's lap (and contents thereof).

    "@Tim 30 @MartinLee" (Matt89). Sorry, don't agree that the Aztec's are the originators of 'dollar' - I'd always been told that it came from Joachimsthal. And

    http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/cm/s/silver_joachimsthaler_of_steph.aspx

    seems to confirm that memory (of dim and distant "Basic Economics" classes in high school).

    Selection of icon surely doesn't need explanation...

  38. jsp
    Boffin

    @Matt 89

    Wrong and wrong. Time to buy yourself a new dictionary. Even Wikipedia is more accurate than your explanations (where on earth did you find them?)

    Dollar is from German thaler via spanish.

    Penny is from German pfennig.

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Joke

    How many do i need to make a dirty bomb?

    Can you help, I need a dirty bomb and would like to pre-order now. Thanks.

  40. David S
    FAIL

    @Matt89 - I call bullshit

    Dollar is a corruption of "Thaler", an old German coin.

    I'm not sure I'd pay a penny for your thoughts, matey... ;)

  41. Adam Salisbury
    FAIL

    Yeah err great i think....

    Except the shelf life of a mobile phone is less than year so why would you want one with a thousand year battery in it. In other news it now costs £1000 to dispose of your old mobile due to the costs of disposing of the radioactive batteries and fly tipping fines are going up due to the proliferation of giant rats.

  42. Richard 81

    @Hungry Sean

    Ice lollies. A lollipop made of ice.

    Similar descriptive naming system to our name for 'grilled cheese' i.e. 'cheese on toast'. Avoids confusion and a lot of mess.

    I'm hungry now.

  43. Herby Silver badge

    Mr. Nuclear??

    Just scale it up a bit, it might need to be a bit bigger, and there you go. No more AlGore inconvenient lies and all that.

    Works for me!

  44. sT0rNG b4R3 duRiD
    Megaphone

    Sounds good BUT...

    1. How 'hot' is a live battery going to be?

    2. How 'hot' is a 'dead' one?

    3. AND.... dum dum dum....

    *** What happens if the battery _outlasts_ the laptop/cellphone/whatever and the user wants to get the next generation laptop/cellphone/whatever? ***

    Face it... After about 5 years tops, most people will be coveting something new...

    (God I know for me it's about 2 years but I don't have unlimited funds so the reality is I have >= 7 year old stuff still running).

    Are most people responsible enough to recycle their old machines? I honestly wouldn't trust most people let alone myself.

    Sounds good, but we should try and work out all the details first.

  45. sT0rNG b4R3 duRiD
    Joke

    Back to the future...

    And.. If we can't yet a Mr. Fusion make, how about a Mr. *Fission*?

  46. dr_forrester
    FAIL

    @skelband

    Just to add to the unnecessary pedantry on this thread - a loon is not a duck. Further, although a loon does float, an individual who weighs the same as a loon is not made of wood, and is therefore not a witch.

  47. Anonymous Coward
    IT Angle

    Icepops

    Icepops are actually what we call the long frozen, flavoured-water sticks which you get un-frozen in a box and freeze yourself. They're also known as Icepoles.

    Oh, and I want to replace all PC CR2032 batteries with these - perhaps then I won't get lusers whining about their RTC!

  48. Steve Evans
    Happy

    Sorry...

    I apologise... I didn't mean to completely turn this comments page into discussions about pennies, dollars (and their etymology) and ice-lollies (Popsicles).

    Although it does give me a sense of perverse pride that I have the disruptive abilities of an EMP at google central.

  49. JBrown
    Thumb Up

    Flying car power source?

    The problem with getting a cheap and useful flying car is mainly down to power density. Nuke battery? Problem solved. Can I pre-order?

  50. Anonymous Coward
    Grenade

    Lots of lollie

    OK, the definitive lolly explanation from my skool days is as follows:

    If it is a fruit-flavoured ice-based confection on a stick, it is "Ice Lolly".

    If it is a fruit-flavoured ice-based confection completely enclosed in a plastic sheath, the end of which you bite off prior to consumption, then it is "Ice Pop".

    Erm, how did we get from nuclear-powered button cells to frozen confection, exactly?

  51. Graham Marsden
    Grenade

    Meanwhile...

    ... Al Qaeda has put in an order for a few million of these...

  52. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    Oh dear

    “People hear the word ‘nuclear’ and think of something very dangerous,” says Kwon. “However, nuclear power sources have already safely powered a variety of devices, such as pace-makers, space satellites and underwater systems.”

    Your examples are poor, Kwon, as they are also much more highly regulated than torch or mobile phone batteries.

  53. Mike Moyle Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    Re: Sorry

    The only problem with the comment derailments is that they haven't been fractious enough to bring on a chastisement from the charming Ms Bee!

  54. Chris 155
    Flame

    Nuclear != bomb

    Why does everyone presume that because it's "nuclear" or "radioactive" it must be the same as a nuclear reactor or an atomic bomb. It's not. There are tonnes of things which are radioactive but not plutonium or uranium.

    Your smoke detector is probably radioactive. Those little bags you put in camping lanterns are radioactive. Any number of things in your house are mildly radioactive.

    That doesn't mean this stuff is safe, but it doesn't mean it's going to explode all over the place.

    As for disposal. The thing about radioactive material is that when it stops giving off radiation(and in this case power) it's because it's stopped being radioactive. When your battery runs out of juice it's because it's not generating enough radiation anymore to power your device. It probably also isn't generating enough radiation to cause anyone any harm, and will probably stop generating any radiation at all within a fairly short period of time(just because the fallout from an atomic bomb lasts for a thousand years doesn't mean that this stuff will, the author is an idiot).

    I'm not saying I'd be super thrilled to stick this sort of thing in my pants pocket or hold it up to my head until they've done a bit more research on its safety, but an isotope of sulfur is a long way off from Uranium or Plutonium.

  55. Trygve Henriksen

    Even worse than letting Sony make them...

    Imagine if they then sold them to Apple for use in their laptops?

    Whatever would they be nicknamed?

  56. Anonymous Coward
    Coat

    Is that a nuclear powered device....

    .....in your pocket?

    Or have you just mutated that way?

  57. Jason Togneri
    Boffin

    @ Steve Evans

    Don't worry about it - I've given these people enough real science, but they don't seem interested in going with anything other than coinage or frozen treats.

    Anyway, back to the story: after thinking about it a bit more, I don't think the battery (or at least, a later design of it) would sole consists of S-35, since they say it would last thousands of years. The other option for this battery is that they have a chain of decays, where either the end product is S or the start product is S. Looking at the chart, I don't see any obvious chains that could be used, but it is possible - if there was a long lived mother nuclide, which would give a constant supply of a shorter lived daughter, then you could have a battery lasting a really long time. I can really see this technology going place.

    At all the "oh noes what about the terrible nuclear waste problem": you really don't have a clue what you're talking about, do you? There are plenty of articles and studies about it out there; go and find some.

  58. Jason Togneri
    Boffin

    @ Chris 155

    You're at least on the right track from the hysterical reactionists. With a thin layer of shielding in my product, a tiny amount of an isotope which doesn't travel very far would have no effect. It's not the chemical that matters so much as the form of the isotope and the type of radiation. But yes, the term "half-life" refers to the rate of DECAY. Thinking about that word further would tend to imply that the product which is radiating, um, decays. Breaks down. Ceases to be. A micromolecular bonded layer of lead material would make it impenetrable to any escaping radiation - it doesn't need to let anything in or out, except electrical current through physical contacts - so would be millions upon millions of times safer for you than any mobile phone EM emissions, even if you swallowed the damn thing.

  59. Jason Togneri
    Stop

    Oh, and radioactive sources...

    Remember those glow-in-the-dark stickers you had as a child? What do you think made them glow? Yes! Radioactive decay. Perfectly harmless. I love talk of "radiation" - it comes from a simple verb, "to radiate", and doesn't imply harm. Heat is simply infra-red radiation. How did you think your food magically cooks when you put it in a microwave? From the micro-wavelength radiation used (see how they got the name?). What about the things they probe you with in a hospital? Some are radioactive, and some are utterly sterile because they've been irradiated to kill the bacteria - that's right, bombarded with radiation. Even archaeologists and police detectives play with radiation - ever wondered how carbon-dating works? "Radiation" is 99% harmless and is in 100% of everyday life (ever wondered how you got that nice suntan? Solar radiation). Ah, the lack of education shocks me sometimes.

  60. Steven Jones

    Dreaming again...

    "Perhaps offering the potential for devices like torches and cellphones which would never run flat"

    I seriously think not. First of all the power outout of a device this size will be tiny - or at least it had better be so, or it is going to get rather hot. Torches and cellphones need significant amounts of power when they are running - in the region of watts, not in the sub-miliwatt range. Secondly, power produced by nuclear decay simply can't be switched on and off. In a nuclear reactor this can be controlled by damping rods to manage the chain reaction. This type of device simply won't do it. I suppose you could devise a way of charging up a more conventional batteries or super-capacitors to store surplus energy to cope with peaks, but it still isn't going to be suitable for cellphones and the like as it will take an awful long time to store up enough energy for a few minutes operation.

    A final point - lets say that somebody could devise a compact device of this sort that could produce enough power to drive a gadget such as a cellphone, mp3 player or the like and do so for several years. That's quite a waste disposal problem that you've created there - anything producing that amount of power from radioactivity is not exactly going to be environmentally friendly. Nope - in this cases, good old batteries have it - the lifetime of a Li-Ion cell is reasonably compatible with that of the average camera, cellphone and the like. It doesn't waste energy uselessly whther it is needed or not and is capable of producing bursts of higher output.

    Another example where I think that Lewis has used his stated fondness from sci-fi to stray into thinking that some of these magical devices he read in those stories about have got any basis in reality at all. If this sort of device has any future, it is for devices with tiny amounts of power requirement over a very long period where other methods, such as solar, can't be used.

  61. jubtastic1
    Grenade

    Dollars & Grenades

    "I think that other countries using 'Dollars' of their own shows a distinct lack of imagination on their part or some kind of sycophancy."

    Back when Europe was building empires by annexing bits of new land, Britain, Spain and the Dutch tended to create local dollars for currency in their colonies.

    So technically the Dollar is like a badge for getting pwned.

  62. Muscleguy Silver badge
    Boffin

    Radiation ≠ Bomb

    I agree with Chris 155. Biology uses 35S routinely to label proteins, its good that it has a short half life, it makes it 'hotter' in the short term if you get it 'fresh'. Isotopes that take centuries to decay are no use because you have then wait decades for your detection system to get a signal. It's things like uranium, plutonium, caesium and such you need to be wary of in terms of long term danger.

    My understanding that the 'fresh' isotopes come from nuclear reactors and syncroton sources meaning they are truly fresh only recently having been made radioactive.

    There are defined waste streams for such material, generally 35S contaminated materials will get stuck behind the squash courts (thick concrete walls) until it has cooled down then put in the general landfill/incinerator waste streams. That way it avoids the costs of paying for disposal of actively hot waste.

  63. mccp
    Happy

    Who loves ya, baby?

    OMFG I can't believe how many questions and answers about lollypops and nobody has mentioned Kojak.

    To add to Skelband's definitive definitions:

    "If it is a fruit-flavoured ice-based confection on a stick, it is "Ice Lolly".

    If it is a fruit-flavoured ice-based confection completely enclosed in a plastic sheath, the end of which you bite off prior to consumption, then it is "Ice Pop"."

    If it is a boiled sugar confection, normally spherical, on the end of a wound paper rod, as sucked by Kojak, then it is a lollypop.

    (Smiley is the baldest and most lollypop-like icon)

  64. TeeCee Gold badge
    Coat

    @Matt 89

    "...who subsquently nicked the name dollar..."

    So it's a nickname then?

  65. Steven Jones

    @Chris 155

    "It probably also isn't generating enough radiation to cause anyone any harm"

    Just how wrong is it possible to be? Ingest a tiny amount of an alpha generator into your body and it can cause tremendous harm. Alexander Litvinenko was killed by ingesting just 10 microgrammes of Polonium 210, but it is reckoned that less than 100 microgrammes would have done the job if ingested. The amount of power produced by such a small amount of radioactive material is truly miniscule, but the individual alpha particles (effectively a helium nucleus travelling at high speed) are sufficiently energetic to cause massive cellular damage through ionising effects. You might have to reduce the radioactive output by a factor of a billion or more from something producing enough power for a cellphone or torch (which is about 30 half-lifes).

    The point about nuclear material is that it is (usually) reasonably safe when contained. A sheet of paper is more than enough to stop an alpha particle - indeed it won't generally penetrate skin. However, if you are going to produce radioactive devices which generate significant amounts of beta or, especially, alpha emitting particles then you have better be 100% confident about their containment and not being able to get into the human food chain in biologically active quanities. Now that's not too much of an issue with smoke detectors - the amount of radioactive material is so tiny that you could swallow the device without significant personal danger from the radioactivity (not recommended though - they are toxic for other reasons). However, by definition this is not true of any device that produces significant and usable amounts of power - which certainly includes anything that produces even microwatt levels (and probably nanowatt levels). That level of power output would continue for long after any such device stopped being useful for its primary purpose.

    I should add that I'm not a luddite here - I'm in favour of nuclear power, but that's a million miles away from producing 100s of millions of radioactive batteries producing significant amounts of power and distributing it around the population is a nightmare. Even if sensible and safe disposal strategies could be constructed, then it would be a gift to terrorists.

    As is often the case, Lewis has lost himself in wild notions of what is possible or desirable. Absolutely the worst, most damaging thing that could be done would be for somebody to find a means of producing near unlimited power, very cheaply. A sudden release of energy is called an explosion - the possibility that this could be done in the nuclear field are terrifying. Be very, very grateful that it takes huge amounts of investment to produce nuclear reactors - it's difficult enough managing the odd rogue regime like Iran or North Korea. What would happen if this stuff could be done in a back yard is the stuff of disaster. As is often the case, Lewis's dreams are reality's nightmares.

  66. Alistair MacRae
    WTF?

    Im no scientest (clearly) but...

    Some people are saying its dangerous to have radioactive batterys desposed once they run out of juice.

    Isn't radioactivity the thing that runs these things, so if its out of juice then its not radioactive right?

    I'd be more worried about someone buying a lot of these batterys and opening them up to poison people with radiation.

    I quite like the idea of using my Iphone for what it's made for for longer 10 minutes without it going flat.

  67. The First Dave
    Headmaster

    @John Sanders

    What is a "candy dispenser",

    and what are your coins doing _on_ your pocket?

  68. Steven Jones

    @Alistair MacRae

    "Isn't radioactivity the thing that runs these things, so if its out of juice then its not radioactive right?"

    No - that's not the way it works. It's not like running out of petrol and having an empty tank. What happens is that the radioactivity of a given isotope halves over a given periods of time. If we leave aside the issue that often an isotope will decay to another one which is also radioactive (eventually, however, the chain of decay will end up with a non-radioactive substance) then this is the effect.

    Let's imagine we have an isotope that halves in radioactivity every 5 years (a half-life of 5 years). Now let's assume that it loses its usefulness to deliver power when it declines by a factor of 8. That will happen after 15 years. At that point it is of no use for its original function. However, if this isotope had been producing useful amounts of power, then the remaining radioactivity will still be very dangerous indeed unless it remains contained. Indeed iif it was producing even a few tens of milliwatts, then it could easily remain potentially dangerous until the amount of radioactivity has been reduced by factors measured in the millions. For a given isotope to reduce its radioactivity by a factor of a million, it will take, near enough, 20 half-lifes. In the case of our example isotope, thats 20 x 5 = 100 years. So we would get useful power for 15 years but it will remain potentially dangerous for 100 years.

    Even if somehow, magically, the radioactivity did "run out" like petrol in a car, then that would still leave a potentially very dangerous substance widly distributed. Very, very easy to make a "dirty bomb" or cause contamination in an accident.

    Quite simply, anything which produces significant amounts of power (certainly anything over the milliwatt level, and almost certainly anything in the microwatt area) through radioactive decay is going to be biologically extremely dangerous. As a simple example, 50 nano-grammes of Polonium 210 (enough to kill 50% of people if ingested) will emit less than 3 microwatts and you would only be able to turn a fraction of that energy into electricity. The dangers from radiation of this sort don't stop with those it kills relatively quickly with radiation sickness - if the isotope is of a sort that accumulates in the body, then the long term exposure effects also have to be taken into account. Plutonium produces relatively small amounts of radiated energy, but is most certainly not something that you want to ingest.

    The idea of significant amounts of power produced in small packages as replacements for batteries is simply complete moonshine. If it could be done, it would, pretty well by definition, be incredibly hazardous.

  69. John PM Chappell
    Stop

    Umm, Steve?

    You've lost the plot a bit there, mate. The potential danger here is pretty minimal, the potential gain quite large and radioactivity really does work the way Jason and others have pointed out.

  70. Muscleguy Silver badge
    Boffin

    Umm, Steve? 2

    Mate, as I stated I have worked with 35S, and 32 and 33P, and 125I and been around tritiated samples. Did you read the actual half life of 35S? When a pot of labelled nucleotides or amino acids gets more than 2months old it gets binned in the radioactive waste stream. Then it gets stored as I said for about a year until it is no longer a danger.

    Are you aware that there will be radioactive carbon in your body from natural isotopes emitting radiation possibly right now? You know what happens the vast majority of the time an alpha or a beta particle hits something in a cell? nothing. If it does damage either the damage is repaired or the cell is kicked into cell death. You need a crippled p53 gene for that to go wrong. Cancer needs at least, at least 2 separate hits to get going.

    Now can you stop scaremongering and treating all radioactive sources as dangerous please?

  71. Steve Evans

    Actually...

    I know it's probably my fault for distracting everyone with talk of pennies and ice-lollies, but I'm astonished nobody had made any reference to Batman's car...

    ... "Atomic batteries to power, turbines to speed" ...

  72. Steven Jones

    @MuscleGuy

    I'm sure you have worked with radioactive isotopes. However, I don't think you've got much knowledge of physics. There is an absolutely massive, ocean of differences between the level of radioactivity required for producing useful amounts of power and those for things like medical markers. It's like comparing a paper airplane with a B52 bomber. Also medical isotopes tend to have short half-lives so they do decay to

    I'm fully aware of the level of natural radiation in the environment. The problem is that to produce useful amounts of power (let's say in the tens or hundreds of milliwatts) you need levels of radioactivity that are many, many orders of magnitude higher. It's factors of billions of timed the level your body has carries naturally. Yes, it is the case that in the vast majority of cases, DNA damaged by natural radiation is repaired. However, even that isn't 100% effective - every now and then a change will be permanent (there have been plant breeding programmes which deliberately used irradiation to instigate mutations). Food can also (safely) be irradiated to sterilise it by killing bacterial and fungal infections. It's a matter of the amount of radiation - if there is enough, then it will kill cells directly, at lower levels it can cause uncorrected dmage in DNA.

    As it happens medical isotopes are also not without significant dangers. Isotopes used by radiotherapy are under tight control for the very good reason that they are obviously highly damaging to human tissue. Even the amount is a minute fraction of what would be required to run a torch or a cellphone. This is not scaremongering - it's a simple matter of the laws of physics (my degree is in Physics from a well-known university in South Kensington). Any level of radiation which produces enough energy to produce power at the levels of 100s or even 10s of milliwatts is inherently very dangerous to people (unless sufficiently contained).

    It's worth repeating again - the idea that small, portable cells powered by the natural decay of radio-isotopes is going to provide sufficient power for a cellphone, MP3, torch or similar device is pure fantasy. It will simply not happen. It's also inherently very inefficient - you simply can't turn off natural radioactive decay. If a radioactive cell produces 100mw in radiation, it will do so whether the power is required or not. Quite simply you cannot slow down the natural rate of decay. In a fission reactor can you make use of chain reactions and controlling dampers to speed up and control this, but that is not going to happen in a small cell. It's difficult enough in full size reactors.

  73. Blizno

    Comments

    I read several comments suggesting that the battery would be thrown away with the dead electronic device. Why? Why would anybody throw away an expensive battery, assuming it's still putting out adequate power?

    Of course one would pop the battery out and pop it into the next device.

    AA and AAA batteries haven't changed size in a very long time. It would be easy to make a few standard formats of nuke batteries.

    There seems to be obsession also on the material to be used. I'll take the word of some posters that sodium isotopes run out of power quickly, or at least much sooner than the "thousands of years" in the article. Why assume that the final battery must use sodium isotopes?

    This is a prototype with a long stretch of development ahead of it. Sure, this unit puts out minuscule power but in a few years ones may be made that put out useful power and last for years.

  74. Blizno

    Flying Car

    I don't know about a flying car but I love the idea of a stack of these batteries that can power an electric car. Some electric cars now use essentially stacks of cellphone batteries or their equivalent.

    Since the battery never turns off, you could plug your electric car into the grid and sell its power when you're not driving.

    Alternatively, have the standard lithium polymer batteries power the car and have a stack of nuke batteries trickle charging constantly. That would reduce the electricity needed to charge the car and might increase its range too.

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