Sometimes, science seems too good to be true.
When I first heard that scientists had found a way to convert nuclear waste into diamond batteries that last hundreds or potentially thousands of years, I was sure that the headline was clickbait. But it’s true.
Geochemist Tom Scott from the U.K.’s University of Bristol has successfully “trapped” unstable nickel-63 inside an artificial diamond, allowing it to quite literally generate its own electricity. As the unstable atoms decay one by one, they release their excess energy, and as it is trapped inside the battery, this could potentially be harnessed and used to power a wide range of devices.
Nickel-63 has a half-life of 100 years. This means that 100 years after the battery is formed, half of the nickel atoms will still be intact. Therefore, a battery created through this method has the potential to last a person’s entire lifetime. Although this battery is still very weak and inefficient, researchers are looking into an alternative — carbon-14 is similarly radioactive, and has a half-life of 5,730 years. A carbon-14 battery would last almost indefinitely. While it is not yet certain how much voltage a carbon-14 battery would be able to produce, researchers theorize that, in the future, these batteries may be able to replace conventional batteries in electrical devices that do not require much power.
Although these batteries are not currently on the market, Scott and his team seem confident that in the future, the carbon-14 batteries could be produced on a far larger scale and sold commercially.
In the U.S., there are currently around 75,000 tons of nuclear waste contained, and there is nothing to use it for. After further investigation, and after Scott’s group publishes its research in scientific journals, it’s possible that we could use waste that already exists (as well as newly generated waste) for something we already need, and that could be more efficient than the batteries we know how to make now.
But there’s an old saying that goes, “if something seems too good to be true, that’s because it is.”
I don’t actually like that saying — I like to think that there is good in the world and that sometimes, amazing things do happen (like the Famous Jimmy’s Lunch Truck existing.) Unfortunately, I don’t think this is one of those things.
Even though this is an incredible use of nuclear waste, the fact remains that radioactive substances are still very dangerous materials to work with. The scientists given the job of making these batteries are putting themselves in harm’s way, exposing themselves to potential radiation sickness and cancer every day they go to work.
Of course, they have a choice in this matter, as they decide to take the job, but what about other people in the area?
Currently, more than 10 percent of the nuclear power plants in the U.S. are in western Pennsylvania and New Jersey. That’s already scary enough, but if we were also building new facilities to experiment on this waste, they’d likely be in similar areas due to the difficulty in transporting such materials.
And no matter how many safety measures were taken in building them, people living in these areas will always be at higher risk to radiation exposure, particularly low-income areas where there is less air purification. Plus, these facilities will be incredibly expensive to set up — money that could be spent funding far safer research into renewable energy and other materials that can form long life batteries.
Lastly, there would always be a risk with using the batteries themselves. If there was to be just a small error in manufacturing them, this could be a huge health hazard to whoever was using it.
This is especially worrying given that the inventors have suggested they could be used in pacemakers, which are literally inside people’s bodies. And with this, there’s no such thing as a product recall. One bad batch, and the damage has been done. Quality control would need to be incredibly strict — which, of course, means even more people working in the nuclear plant.
Nuclear energy is already incredibly efficient, and now we know that the waste could be used to make great things. And while I am usually completely in favor of scientific advancement, this is one discovery that I think should remain in the ground.