Scientists at the University of Missouri (MU) have created a nuclear battery that can be used to supply energy to everything from electric cars to space flight.
The technology is called betavoltaics, and it isn’t really a new idea. Jae W. Kwon, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and nuclear engineering at the university’s college of engineering, says the idea has been studied since the 1950s.
Even though it uses strontium-90, a radioactive isotope and the most dangerous component of fallout from a nuclear explosion, Kwon claims it’s safe.
“Controlled nuclear technologies are not inherently dangerous,” Kwon says. “We already have many commercial uses of nuclear technologies in our lives, including fire detectors in bedrooms and emergency exit signs in buildings.”
The battery uses strontium-90 to increase the electrochemical energy in a water-based solution. And it includes a microscopic, or “nanostructured,” electrode made with titanium dioxide, which is normally found in ultraviolet sun blocks such as those used in sunscreens. The electrode, that includes a platinum coating, gathers the electrochemical energy and converts it into electrons.
The water acts as a buffer to protect the battery’s contents, Kwon explains. Meanwhile, he says, “surface plasmons”, the collective oscillation of the electrons, are created in the device, and they help improve the device’s efficiency.
The ions (electrically charged atoms) make the water very difficult to freeze, even at extremely low temperatures. As a result, Kwon says, the battery is so versatile that it could replace a conventional automotive battery.
Kwon also said that, if packaged properly, the battery could even be used to provide electricity to spacecraft. However, he cautions that these batteries will require extensive testing before they are used to power electrical equipment.
Kwon confesses that there is no guarantee that a proper casing for the batteries can be found to adapt them to the rigors of spaceflight.
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