Researchers, physicists, and chemists at the University of Bristol, UK, have discovered a way to convert thousands of tons of seemingly worthless nuclear waste into man-made diamond batteries that can generate a small electric current for longer than a thousand years. This is a truly fantastic breakthrough given the fact that the main problem in dealing with nuclear waste is to really separate what is just waste and what can still be used as a valuable resource. Ever since nuclear power was discovered that could generate electricity for commercial consumption, the disposal of nuclear waste has been its greatest problem and challenge. And while it’s true that the present methods of long-term storage and disposal is proving inadequate, dangerous, and non-permanent, another problem is separating the still valuable radioactive isotopes that is still needed industry and medicine from spent nuclear fuel and waste, or reprocessing the waste to produce another kind of fuel.
The Bristol team’s work centers on a major source of nuclear waste coming from Britain’s aging Magnox nuclear reactors. This is a first generation reactor that is soon facing decommission after over half a century of faithful service. Nuclear reactors normally use graphite blocks to slow down neutrons to keep the nuclear fission process going, but after decades of exposure these blocks need to be decommissioned and considered waste. Magnox will be leaving more than 100,000 tons of nuclear waste behind. Instead of burying the Carbon-14 low yield block wastes, the Bristol team is planning to remove the C-14 and to convert these into the electricity-generating diamonds while the rest of the graphite block as nuclear waste. The nuclear diamond battery is based on the fact that when a man-made diamond is exposed to radiation, it produces a small electric current. According to the researchers, this makes it possible to build a battery that has no moving parts, gives off no emissions, and is maintenance-free.
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According to the Bristol researchers, to produce the batteries, the blocks are heated to drive out the carbon-14 from the radioactive end, leaving the blocks much less radioactive than before (and therefore much safer now to be buried or store away. Carbon-14 gas is then collected and, using low pressures and high temperatures, is then converted into man-made diamonds. Once formed, the beta particles emitted by the C-14 interact with the diamond’s crystal lattice, throwing off electrons and generating electricity. The diamonds themselves are radioactive, so they are given a second non-radioactive diamond coating to act as a radiation shield. This means a person sitting next to a diamond battery would receive about as much radiation as they would sitting next to a LED television. In addition, the hardness of the diamonds helps keep the radioactive material safe. The Bristol team has already built a prototype diamond battery that used the isotope nickel-63 as radioactive fuel and is now moving on to using Carbon-14, which will be more efficient. Because C-14 has a long shelf life, the researchers estimate that a diamond battery would generate enough of its power capacity up to 5,730 years.