Scientists Turn Nuclear Waste Into Diamond Batteries

Scientists at the University of Bristol have found a way to convert thousands of tons of nuclear waste into man-made diamond batteries that can generate a small electric current for thousands of years. New Atlas reports: How to dispose of nuclear waste is one of the great technical challenges of the 21st century. The trouble is, it usually turns out not to be so much a question of disposal as long-term storage. Disposal, therefore is more often a matter of keeping waste safe, but being able to get at it later when needed. One unexpected example of this is the Bristol team’s work on a major source of nuclear waste from Britain’s aging Magnox reactors, which are now being decommissioned after over half a century of service. These first generation reactors used graphite blocks as moderators to slow down neutrons to keep the nuclear fission process running, but decades of exposure have left the UK with 104,720 tons of graphite blocks that are now classed as nuclear waste because the radiation in the reactors changes some of the inert carbon in the blocks into radioactive carbon-14. Carbon-14 is a low-yield beta particle emitter that can’t penetrate even a few centimeters of air, but it’s still too dangerous to allow into the environment. Instead of burying it, the Bristol team’s solution is to remove most of the c-14 from the graphite blocks and turn it into electricity-generating diamonds. 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. The Bristol researchers found that the carbon-14 wasn’t uniformly distributed in the Magnox blocks, but is concentrated in the side closest to the uranium fuel rods. 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. c-14 gas is then collected and using low pressures and high temperatures is turned 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.

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