Scientists in England are trying to recycle decommissioned nuclear plant materials into cutting-edge diamond batteries. The pressing of this kind of carbon into manufactured diamonds is called chemical vapor deposition.
The decommissioned plant powering this project is the Berkeley plant in the county of Gloucestershire, about two hours west of London and home of a massively popular “country house” region called the Cotswolds. “Berkeley was the first commercial nuclear power station in the United Kingdom to be decommissioned following its closure in 1989,” Historic England says.
After 30 years, scientists can finally safely go into parts of the plant—not the reactor, but to waste receptacles beneath the plant, where spent graphite was stored and can now be removed. By “encapsulating radioactive material inside diamonds,” lead researcher Tom Scott of the University of Bristol says the graphite can be turned into durable, extremes-tolerant electricity via diamond batteries.
“Over the past few years we have been developing ultra-low powered sensors that harvest energy from radioactive decay,” he says in the statement.
The secret is in harvesting the radioactive carbon-14 isotope from the plant’s supply of spent graphite. Scott says the factory to turn graphite carbon into diamonds for batteries could be built on the same spot as the decommissioned plant. The carbon has a half life of over 5,000 years, giving a diamond battery an overall life span, well, thousands of times more than the hearing aid battery or the pair of AAAs that powers your remote control. And because the radioactivity is encased within a diamond, there’s no chance it will break down before it runs out of juice.
Scott says his team has tested prototype diamond batteries in volcanoes, and “extremophile” batteries certainly have usefulness—but more immediately, such a battery could be built into a device like a pacemaker, where any need to change a battery involves surgical intrusion. And the extremophile applications also include spaceflight, offering the potential to swap heavy, “disposable” fuel reserves for something self contained that will run for 5,000 years without any outside support or interference.
A small, durable power source has great potential, especially in outer space, where tiny booster rockets can redirect the International Space Station. There’s also no intermediary interface, wiring, or conductors required—just a chemical reaction that generates a low, continuous electrical current.
The Berkeley power plant in Gloucestershire is said to be the first commercial nuclear power plant in the world, but the title is misleading, because these power plants also served to produce materials meant for use as nuclear weapons fuel. For this reason, they have the dubious name of “breeder reactors.”
The first breeder reactor dates back to 1951 in the U.S., but they spread quickly around the world during the dawn of the Nuclear Age. Eventually, a breeder reactor can make enough new fuel to basically duplicate itself. That time window is called its doubling time, and while the breeder reactors might multiply like neon-glowing bunnies, they were never robust enough to take off as a major commercial power source.