How nuclear waste and diamonds can save smartphone batteries

Science fiction has become a reality as we carry phones in our pockets that work like little computers. However, even as technology advances, the power source holds us back behind the technology, limiting the benefits of these devices. From the moment we turn on a device, the clock is ticking as the battery drains and loses capacity. It’s a daily chore to make sure a battery is charged and ready to go, and we all forget to plug it in overnight from time to time.

For me as a content creator and with cameras, drones, tablets, microphones and other devices that need charging, making sure all my electronics are working when I need them can become quite a chore. To make matters worse, many phones and other mobile devices make battery replacement difficult or even impossible. But a solution is emerging. One day there will come a battery revolution using an unlikely combination of nuclear waste and diamonds.

Why today’s phone batteries are a problem

A collection of different batteries.
Andy Zahn / Digital Trends

From the beginning to the end of the life cycle of our electronics, batteries cause many problems. Mining lithium and other components of the batteries we currently use is a dirty, destructive business – as is refining these rare materials. As demand increases, these impacts will afflict more and more of our wild landscapes with potentially catastrophic consequences.

All too often, once our batteries die, they and the devices that power them end up in landfills. Sometimes our e-waste is shipped overseas where it is then improperly salvaged or incinerated and ends up in the air and water. Only a small percentage of our end-of-life electronics are actually responsibly recycled. If only batteries didn’t degrade so quickly, this waste could be drastically reduced.

How nuclear technology could be our solution

Of all the promising new battery technologies being worked on today, nuclear batteries have to be the most exciting. Not only would such batteries potentially last for tens, hundreds, or even thousands of years, but they would generate their own energy from radiation. In the not too distant future, not only could our batteries outlast our phones and possibly our own lifespans by many times, they would also never need to be recharged.

As if the concept of atomic batteries couldn’t sound crazier, the ones that might one day find their way into our phones and cars would actually be made out of man-made nanodiamonds. To call the science behind these nanodiamond batteries complex is an understatement. Essentially, to put it simply, radioactive elements are extracted from nuclear waste and encased in diamonds by chemical vapor deposition. The diamond then acts as a converter to convert the radiation into electricity.

A microscope image of nanodiamonds.
D.Mukherjee/Wikimedia Commons

In addition to durability and self-charging, nuclear batteries would revolutionize smartphone design. They would eliminate the need for charging ports, allowing phones to be made fully waterproof and much more resilient than ever before. It is also conceivable that, given the ever-cheaper production of artificial diamonds, our mobile phones will soon be diamond-coated and thus practically indestructible.

Aside from phones, these nuclear batteries could potentially power every electronic device we use today. From smartwatches and earbuds to cars, drones and even robots. Once you think about it, you realize that nanodiamond batteries have the potential to transform many aspects of our technology that are hampered by the limitations of our current, deeply flawed, battery design.

The company is trying to make nuclear batteries a reality

One of the leading companies developing this technology is NDB, an acronym that stands for “Nano Diamond Batteries”. In the words of NDB CEO Dr. Nima Golsharifi, when interviewed for an episode of the Energy Cast podcast: “Metaphorically speaking, it’s similar to solar panels; The difference is that NDB generates electricity using radiation from radioactive materials instead of sunlight.”

Diamond batteries are also a possible solution to the long-neglected problems of disposing of waste from nuclear fission power plants. Enormous amounts of this highly hazardous material exist around the world and are incredibly expensive to store or dispose of. However, this waste is also rich in energy, powering the nuclear batteries that NDB is developing.

The NDB technology logo on a chip.

like dr As Golsharifi puts it, “NDB solutions and the purpose of our company is to put these by-products to good use and solve the nuclear waste problems and in turn help the environment by promoting nuclear energy, which is a clean source. and in turn support society by creating a kind of circular economy.”

Of course, a logical question you might be asking yourself is whether or not these batteries are safe. There is a stigma attached to anything related to nuclear power, which poses a potential barrier to the adoption of this technology, but Dr. Golsharifi believes this fear can be overcome through education: “Not many people know that most smoke detectors contain radioactive material; Nevertheless, they have them at home without any problems.”

Radiation from nuclear batteries is safely contained within these tiny diamonds. “We have a converter lockout system that prevents the isotope from being accessed in bulk and used for anything other than the NDB’s power source. We specifically do this through nanoscale ion implantation of radioisotopes into our structure, and this allows us to meet various consumer safety requirements,” explains Dr. Golsharifi.

NDB has conducted extensive research to ensure their batteries are safe enough to be used in products such as phones and cars. In many ways, NDB batteries produce no emissions or harmful radiation. Nuclear batteries made from nearly indestructible diamonds are probably safer than lithium-ion batteries, which are known to explode and catch fire.

Another relevant question is the cost. Finally, we are talking about a product made of both diamonds and nuclear material. However, costs are already falling, from $2.4 million per kilogram down to $40,000 in 2018 (according to Dr. Golsharifi). NDB expects the price to drop even further with mass production, initially more expensive than lithium-ion and decreasing over time to eventually become competitive with lithium-ion.

Even if they’re more expensive than regular batteries to start with, wouldn’t you be willing to pay extra for a phone that you never need to charge again? A car that never needs to be refueled? Devices that not only never run empty, but return their juice to the grid or reduce your electricity bills at home?

Nanodiamond batteries never need to be recharged, last longer than the devices they would power, are safe for use in consumer products, and would help solve the age-old question of what to do with our nuclear waste.

Nuclear devices are coming in 2023

So when can we expect nuclear batteries to hit the market? NDB has already conducted proof-of-concept tests and intends to have a working product ready by 2023. Arkenlight, another nanodiamond battery company, has already deployed low-power nuclear batteries in surveillance equipment at Stromboli volcano and at a UK nuclear waste site. It will be a while before the first nanodiamond batteries make it into our smartphones, and probably much longer before they power our cars.

Even if we end up having to wait five to ten years for this technology to become commonplace, this is far from the time for such revolutionary advances. Of course, it’s also worth acknowledging how unpredictable cutting-edge technology like this can be. Given that the science behind this is solid, and smaller implementations of these batteries are already in the field, I see good reason to be optimistic that one day our batteries will soon outlast our phones and never need recharging.

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