How nuclear waste and diamonds can save smartphone batteries

Science fiction has become reality because we carry phones in our pockets that behave like tiny computers. But even as technology advances, we are held back by the powerhouse behind the technology, limiting the benefits of these devices. From the moment we turn on a device, the clock is ticking if the battery degrades and loses capacity† Making sure a battery is charged and ready to go is a hassle every day, and we all forget to plug it in from time to time at night.

For me, as a content creator and with cameras, drones tablets, microphones and other devices to stay charged can become a chore to make sure all my electronics work when I need them. To make matters worse, replacing the battery in many phones and other mobile devices is difficult or downright impossible. But a solution is on the way. Soon there will be a battery revolution with an unlikely combination of nuclear waste and diamonds.

Why today’s phone batteries are a problem

A collection of different batteries.
Andy Zahn / Digital Trends

From the beginning to the end of the life cycle of our electronics, batteries present many problems. Mining lithium and other components of the batteries we currently use is a dirty, destructive affair – as is the refinement of these rare materials. As demand increases, these effects will increasingly plague our wild landscapes, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Once our batteries are depleted, they and the devices that often power them end up rotting in landfills† Sometimes our electronic waste is shipped abroad, where it is improperly salvaged or incinerated and ends up in the air and water. Only a small percentage of our discarded electronics are actually recycled responsibly. If batteries didn’t deteriorate so quickly, such waste could be drastically reduced.

How nuclear technology can be our solution

From all promising new battery technology being worked on today, the core batteries must be the most exciting. Such batteries could not only last for tens, hundreds, or even thousands of years, but they would also generate their own energy through radiation. In the not-too-distant future, our batteries may not only last longer than our phones and potentially last many times longer than our own lifespan, but they’ll never need to be recharged.

As if the concept of nuclear batteries Couldn’t sound crazier, the ones that would one day find their way into our phones and cars would actually be made of artificial nanodiamonds. To call the science behind these nanodiamond batteries complex is an understatement. Essentially, radioactive elements, in the simplest possible terms, are recovered from nuclear waste and encapsulated in diamonds using chemical vapor deposition. The diamond then acts as a transducer to convert the radiation into electricity.

A microscope image of nanodiamonds.
D. Mukherjee/Wikimedia Commons

In addition to longevity and self-charging capability, nuclear batteries would revolutionize smartphone design. they would make charging ports unnecessary, so phones can be made completely waterproof and made much stronger than ever before. It is also conceivable, as artificial diamonds become cheaper to produce, that our phones will soon be diamond-plated and thus practically indestructible.

In addition to telephones, these nuclear batteries could potentially power every electronic device we use today. From smartwatches and earplugs to cars, drones and even robots. Once you start thinking about it, you realize that nanodiamond batteries have the potential to change many aspects of our technology that are held back by the limitations of our current, very flawed battery design.

The company trying to realize nuclear batteries

One of the leading companies developing this technology is: NDB, an acronym that stands for ‘Nano Diamond Batteries’. In the words of NDB CEO Dr. Nima Golsharif, when he was interviewed for an episode of the Energy Cast Podcast: “Metaphorically speaking, it’s similar to solar panels; the difference is that NDB generates electricity with the radiation of radioactive substances instead of the sunlight”

Diamond batteries are also a potential solution to the long-neglected waste disposal problems from nuclear fission plants. Huge amounts of this highly dangerous material exist all over the world and storing or disposing of it is incredibly expensive. However, this waste is also rich in energy, and it is the power of the core batteries that NDB is developing.

The NDB technology logo on a chip.
NDB incl

Like dr. Golsharif put it: “NDB solutions, and the goal of our company, is to make good use of these by-products and solve the problems of nuclear waste, and in turn help the environment by promoting nuclear energy that has a clean source, and in turn support society by creating a kind of circular economy.”

Of course, a logical question you could ask is: whether or not these batteries are safe† There is a stigma surrounding all things nuclear, which is a potential roadblock to the adoption of this technology, but Dr. Golsharif believes this fear can be overcome through education: “Not many people know that most smoke detectors contain radioactive material; yet they have them at home without any problems.”

The radiation from nuclear batteries is safely stored in those tiny diamonds. “We have a transducer locking system that prevents the isotope from being approached in bulk and used for purposes other than the power source of the NDB. We do this specifically through nanoscale ion implantation of radioisotopes into our structure, and this allows us to meet various consumer safety requirements,” explains Dr. Golsharif out.

NDB has done extensive research to ensure that their batteries are safe enough for use in products such as phones and cars. In many ways, NDB batteries produce no emissions or harmful radiation. Nuclear batteries composed of nearly indestructible diamonds are likely safer than lithium-ion batteries, which are known to explode and catch fire.

Another relevant question is the cost. After all, we are talking about a product made of both diamonds and nuclear material. However, costs are already falling, from $2.4 million per kilogram to $40,000 in 2018 (according to Dr. Golsharif). NDB expects the mass-produced price to drop even further, initially more expensive than lithium-ion and dropping over time, eventually becoming competitively priced with lithium-ion.

Even if they are initially more expensive than traditional batteries, wouldn’t you be willing to pay extra? for a phone you never have to charge† A car that never needs to be refueled? Devices that not only never run dry, but that sell their juice back to the grid, or that lower your energy bill at home?

Nanodiamond batteries never need to be recharged, last longer than the devices they would power, are safe for use in consumer products and would help answer the age-old question of what to do with our nuclear waste.

Nuclear gadgets are coming in 2023

So when can we expect core batteries to hit the market? NDB has already conducted proof-of-concept testing and plans to have a working product ready by 2023. ark light, another nanodiamond battery company, already has low-power core batteries in use for surveillance equipment at Stromboli Volcano and a nuclear waste site in the UK. It will be a little further into the future before the first nanodiamond batteries make their way into our smartphones, and probably much longer before they power our cars.

Even if we eventually have to wait five to ten years for this technology to become commonplace, that is not the time for such revolutionary progress at all. Of course, it’s also worth recognizing how unpredictable, advanced technology like this can be. Given that the science behind it is solid and that small implementations of these batteries are already in the field, I see good reason to be optimistic that our batteries will soon outlast our phones, and never needs to be charged

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