Enclosing radioactive waste inside diamonds can produce electricity for thousands of years - the amazing potential discovered by researchers at the University of Bristol.
Nuclear waste management is of major concern to society. Highly toxic, radioactive waste can take hundreds, even thousands, of years to disappear. To isolate it, countries with a nuclear industry bury it deeply or store it in special storage centers. But a new solution may be emerging - scientists at Bristol University in England have found a way of transforming this waste into power.
Nuclear industry pioneers in the 1950s, countries such as France, the United Kingdom and the United States developed “uranium naturel graphite gaz” (UNGG) nuclear reactors. A complicated system which meant that the uranium – used as fuel in the reactors - was housed in the core of a graphite block.
Graphite and carbon 14
Graphite is one of the forms that carbon can take. It is a completely harmless mineral that nevertheless becomes radioactive when in contact with uranium: it then becomes carbon 14. It is estimated that carbon 14 radioactivity reduces by half every 5,730 years. In other words, an eternity...
Nuclear technology evolved in the 1970s, and one by one countries decided to decommission their now obsolete UNGG reasctors. In concrete terms, this means millions of metric tons of radioactive carbon blocks to be managed - which is where the University of Bristol researchers come in.
These researchers observed that the radioactivity was concentrated on the outer surface of carbon 14. By heating it, most of the radioactivity escapes in the form of gas. The scientists recovered this radioactive gas and incorporated it into a diamond, which is just another form of carbon. Surprise! After this transformation, they discovered that these mini-diamonds naturally generate a small electric current.
Diamonds and Russian dolls
For greater security, the researchers locked up the radioactive diamond in a larger non-radioactive diamond. A diamond was chosen because it is the hardest material on the planet. The protective diamond absorbs all the radiation emitted by the mini-diamond and even amplifies its conversion into electrical power. And in fact the Russian doll system releases less radioactivity than a banana! But most importantly, it is a new kind of mini nuclear powered battery: there are no emissions, it doesn’t require any maintenance, and as carbon 14 only loses its radioactivity after 5,730 years it has a useful life of several thousand years!
These old batteries could be useful in situations where it is difficult, if not impossible, to change conventional batteries – for example in pacemakers or even satellites. More generally, they could change our view of electrical equipment. Imagine never having to recharge your smartphone! There are so many possible uses that the University of Bristol is inviting ideas via the hashtag #diamondbatteries.
This innovative battery is still in the prototype stage. Nevertheless, if it were to be developed on a large scale, it would kill two birds with one stone – solve a nuclear waste management issue and produce clean, sustainable energy!
Main picture: Getty Images