Up and atom: How exactly does a ‘forever’ battery work? - Hindustan Times

Up and atom: How exactly does a ‘forever’ battery work?

Apr 13, 2024 01:19 PM IST

They are small, nuclear, and will never need to be charged. But what are they likely to cost? What will their carbon footprint be? Take a look.

How the world changes… The technology that powered the nuclear bomb may soon be so tamed, it will sit in palms and laps, powering phone and laptop batteries so effectively that they may never need to be charged.

A BetaVolt atomic battery about the size of a coin could allow a drone, which can currently fly for about 15 minutes at a time, to fly for years on end. PREMIUM
A BetaVolt atomic battery about the size of a coin could allow a drone, which can currently fly for about 15 minutes at a time, to fly for years on end.

Radioactive materials such as nickel-63, which has a half-life of about 100 years, could power a personal device for as much as half a century, manufacturers have said.

How would this futuristic tech work? Let’s first take a quick look back.

The AA and AAA alkaline batteries essentially use the reactions between different metals, such as zinc and manganese, and a liquid electrolyte, to generate a current. As the metals are depleted in the cylinders, the battery ceases to function.

The lithium-ion batteries used in most of today’s smart devices use the lighter element lithium, and a liquid electrolyte, allowing these batteries to be much smaller.

Nuclear batteries would work by harnessing the reaction of a tiny quantity of a radioactive isotope to power a hardy semiconductor that generates electricity. Such batteries could be so small that one the size of a thick coin would make it so a smartphone would never need to be charged.

Australia’s PhosEnergy and China’s BetaVolt are at the forefront of this race.

“If policy permits, with the atomic battery, a drone that can now only fly for 15 minutes could fly all the time,” BetaVolt said in a statement in January.

Framing that policy will be crucial. Nuclear batteries would be so small that they could accidentally be ingested, with lethal consequences. Their manufacture and disposal would need to be closely regulated too. And while nuclear energy is vigilantly monitored worldwide, there is no legislation specifically aimed at nuclear batteries.

Europe will likely be the first to change this. A draft framed last year seeks to update the EU’s Critical Raw Materials Act to include mining limits for raw materials, recycling guidelines, and safety processes for the manufacturing of such batteries. (It has yet to be discussed and passed.)

On the consumer front, BetaVolt’s BV100 will likely be the world’s first mass-produced nuclear battery. (PhosEnergy is working on a longer view of applications in space exploration and scientific research.)

The BV100 has tentatively been scheduled for rollout in 2025. The current test model, however, is too small to power a smartphone. It could potentially power a small smart-home device. Even so, the battery would also cost about $500 ( 41,000). A smartphone battery would cost far more.

One possible way over this hurdle would be to use nuclear waste. This would reduce their carbon footprint too, but research in this area is still nascent.

However they do come about, these won’t be the first of their kind. Tiny nuclear-powered cells were used to power cardiac pacemakers in the 1970s and ’80s, before less-expensive lithium-ion alternatives emerged.

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