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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:

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Videos
  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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