Scientists turn nuclear waste into diamond batteries

They'll reportedly last for thousands of years. This technology may someday power spacecraft, satellites, high-flying drones, and pacemakers.

Woman looking at a diamond.

Nuclear energy is carbon free, which makes it an attractive and practical alternative to fossil fuels, as it doesn't contribute to global warming. We also have the infrastructure for it already in place. It's nuclear waste that makes fission bad for the environment. And it lasts for so long, some isotopes for thousands of years. Nuclear fuel is comprised of ceramic pellets of uranium-235 placed within metal rods. After fission takes place, two radioactive isotopes are left over: cesium-137 and strontium-90.


These each have half-lives of 30 years, meaning the radiation will be half gone by that time. Transuranic wastes, such as Plutonium-239, are also created in the process. This has a half-life of 24,000 years. These materials are highly radioactive, making them extremely dangerous to handle, even with short-term exposure.

The typical nuclear power plant creates about 2,300 tons of waste annually. 99 reactors are currently employed in the United States. That's a lot of waste per year. The US is currently stockpiling 75,000 tons of nuclear waste. It is carefully stored and maintained. However, just like anything else it is vulnerable to natural disasters, human error, even terrorism. Storage is also costly. American taxpayers are on the hook for tens of millions of dollars.

So what can be done? Researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK have a solution. Geochemist Tom Scott and colleagues have invented a method to encapsulate nuclear waste within diamonds, which as a battery, can provide a clean energy supply lasting in some cases, thousands of years.

How a nuclear power plant works.

Scott said there were no emissions, no moving parts, no maintenance, and zero concerns about safety. The radiation is locked safely away inside the gemstone. All the while, it generates a small, steady stream of electricity. Nickel–63, an unstable isotope, was used in this first experiment. It created a battery with a half-life of a century.

There are other substances which would last over ten times longer, while helping to reduce our nuclear waste stockpile. Older nuclear reactors, in service between the 1950s and the 1970's, used graphite blocks to cool the uranium rods. But after years of service these blocks become covered in a layer of carbon-14, a radioactive isotope with a half-life of around 5,730 years. Once a power plant is decommissioned, those blocks must be stored as well.

By heating the blocks, scientists can turn carbon-14 into a gas, which would be gathered and compressed into a diamond—since diamonds are just another form of carbon, anyway. Each gemstone emits short-range radiation, which is easily contained by just about any solid material. Since diamond is the strongest substance on Earth, it can be safely stored inside. Researchers covered their work in a lecture at the university entitled, “Ideas to change the world."

The diamond batteries only put out a small amount of current. They can't replace contemporary ones quite yet. Scott told Digital Trends, "An alkaline AA battery weighs about 20 grams, has an energy density storage rating of 700 Joules/gram, and [uses] up this energy if operated continuously for about 24 hours." Meanwhile, "A diamond beta-battery containing 1 gram of C14 will deliver 15 Joules per day, and will continue to produce this level of output for 5,730 years — so its total energy storage rating is 2.7 TeraJ." Another stumbling block is cost, as anyone who has ever saved up for an engagement ring can attest.

Once these hurdles are overcome, possible applications include powering spacecraft, satellites, high- flying drones, and medical devices such as pacemakers—anything really where batteries are difficult or impossible to charge, or change. One tantalizing speculation: powered by such crystals, interstellar probes could operate even in the darkest reaches of space, where solar power is no longer feasible.

Applications abound. So much so, that Dr. Scott and colleagues are asking the public for other possible uses. Weigh in with yours at: #diamondbattery

To learn more about this project click here:

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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