On my news aggregator yesterday was a story on newatlas.com titled, “Nano-diamond self-charging batteries could disrupt energy as we know it.” What the hell? That pegged out my weird-s**t-o-meter, so I had to read it.
First, here’s the backstory. It turns out that in 2016, back when [political rant deleted for space], a group of scientists at the University of Bristol took some radioactive waste graphite, squeezed it into teensy-weensy diamonds…and those diamonds generated a small amount of energy all by themselves, though not enough to power a cell phone. You see, in many reactors, graphite is used as a moderator to control the heat flow, and when the reactor is refueled or decommissioned, all the graphite removed is rich in carbon-14 and is highly radioactive, and at that time the United Kingdom had 95,000 tons of it sitting around pumping out zoomies (which is how we sometimes referred to radiation in the Navy), its half-life of 5730 years providing motivation for hundreds of generations of protesters.
According to a 2017 article by the Snopes fact-checking service, the concept of transforming radioactive waste graphite into electricity-emitting diamonds has been around since at least 1973, and that it might be possible to safely encase the nano-diamond battery inside another diamond and and use the resultant “betavoltaic” diamond to generate electricity.
So a company in California named NDB (for “Nano-Diamond Battery”, strangely enough) appears to have done just that. They claimed to have improved the process to the point where the radioactive nano-diamonds can generate enough electricity to be not just useful, but commercially viable and scalable. Here’s how the newer article explained the process:
This graphite is rich in the carbon-14 radioisotope, which undergoes beta decay into nitrogen, releasing an anti-neutrino and a beta decay electron in the process. NDB takes this graphite, purifies it and uses it to create tiny carbon-14 diamonds. The diamond structure acts as a semiconductor and heat sink, collecting the charge and transporting it out. Completely encasing the radioactive carbon-14 diamond is a layer of cheap, non-radioactive, lab-created carbon-12 diamond, which contains the energetic particles, prevents radiation leaks and acts as a super-hard protective and tamper-proof layer.
Most of us would think that manufacturing a radioactive diamond and encasing it inside another manufactured diamond sounds outrageously expensive. Answers on Quora and Reddit indicate about $2300 per carat (’cause the internet never lies, right?), and one can’t help but wonder how much more it costs with radiation hazard mitigation measures. In an interview, the Chief Strategy Officer at NDB said that their manufacturing process is somewhat more expensive than for lithium-ion batteries, but the latter need to be charged, whereas NDB’s are not only self-charging, but:
“Think of it in an iPhone. With the same size battery, it would charge your battery from zero to full, five times an hour. Imagine that. Imagine a world where you wouldn’t have to charge your battery at all for the day. Now imagine for the week, for the month… How about for decades? That’s what we’re able to do with this technology.”
He claims the technology is scalable enough to power electric cars where the batteries may have a useful life of up to 90 years. Let that sink in for a moment: a self-charging battery that can power your car for 90 years, for not much more than what current electric-vehicle batteries cost today. The company claims it can even be used to power aircraft.
I hate being a cynic. Read most of my articles — hope and optimism drips off them like honey poured over…well, let’s not go there. But even an eternal Pollyanna like me must acknowledge the fact that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. After all, I’m old enough to remember the cold fusion fiasco of 1989 where two scientists named Pons and Fleischmann had claimed to produce fusion — that holy grail of energy production — at room temperature. The hype and hope were insane, and energy would be cheap and plentiful for all…until it all went up in smoke like so much phlogiston, and the two scientists’ names became synonymous with the danger of not adhering to strict standards of scientific rigor. The collective dreams of geekdom were dashed upon the baryonic rocks of the scientific method. Yes, even today there’s highly-qualified scientists striving to make cold fusion work, but more and more it’s looking like a high-tech version of a perpetual motion machine.
As far as NDB goes, it seems the jury is still out. Just because a scientific concept seems possible, that doesn’t mean the engineering on a mass-production scale is feasible, much less commercially viable. According to Germany-based finanzen.net:
NDB…today announced completion of two successful Proofs of Concept tests of the NDB battery at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. NDB’s battery achieved a breakthrough 40% charge, a significant improvement over commercial diamonds, which have only 15% charge collection efficiency. NDB also announced its first two beta customers, including a leader in nuclear fuel cycle products and services and a leading global aerospace, defense and security manufacturing company. Development of the first NDB commercial prototype battery is currently underway and will be available later this year.
So it’s definitely a maybe. We may have seen this movie before, and if so, it doesn’t end well. But if this technology pans out, we could have safe, relatively-green, radioactive-waste-mitigating, and self-recharging batteries that we can pass down to our kids and grandkids, and for not much more than we’re paying for lithium-ion batteries today.
I mean, Damn.