Water-based nuclear batteries could power spacecraft for 100 years

Spacecraft may be able to use technology that lasts for up to 100 years, in harsh environments and low temperatures, thanks to a new water-based nuclear battery.

The new battery using betavoltaics, a battery technology that generates electricity from radiation, has been developed in the US that could help to provide a lengthy power source for extended missions in to space.

As well as this the technology has been touted as a solution implantable medical devices, which would not need to be removed frequently due to the battery being low.

The battery created, at the University of Missouri, US, uses a radioactive isotope that boosts electrochemical energy in a water-based solution.

A nanostructured titanium dioxide electrode then collects and converts energy into electrons.

Jae W. Kwon, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and nuclear engineering, said that using water increases the possibilities of the battery.

“Water acts as a buffer and surface plasmons created in the device turned out to be very useful in increasing its efficiency.

“The ionic solution is not easily frozen at very low temperatures and could work in a wide variety of applications including car batteries and, if packaged properly, perhaps spacecraft.”

NASA who is also researching the betavoltaic technology, as well as alphavoltaic technology, said they could last up to 100 years when fully developed.

“These small devices would be capable of providing low levels of power for an extremely long period of time (i.e., >100 years) and would be capable of operating over a wide range of operational environments with little if any loss of performance, most notably at extremely low temperatures (i.e., < 100 K), but also in harsh biological environments.”


The idea of using betaoltaics has been around for some time and was even used in early pacemakers.

The university has not announced details of the power output or conversion rates of the new battery at present.

However the technology, which was available at the time, could not allow the devices to be efficient and cheaper lithium-ion batteries eventually replaced them. Now, the new advancements could be the doors are re-opened for the radiation powered devices.

Kwon said: “Betavoltaics, a battery technology that generates power from radiation, has been studied as an energy source since the 1950s.

“Controlled nuclear technologies are not inherently dangerous. We already have many commercial uses of nuclear technologies in our lives including fire detectors in bedrooms and emergency exit signs in buildings.”

A study from 1973 discussed the potential for betavoltaic energy conversion.

It said: “Interest in low-power, long-life power sources has been significantly increased in recent years, primarily because of the emergence of clearly defined applications.”

The paper from L.C. Olsen suggested that the most likely uses would be for military and biomedical uses.

Research conducted by Sara Harrison at Stanford University, in 2013, said that the nuclear batteries will have significant advantages over traditional batteries.

She wrote: “It is well established that conventional electrochemical batteries, despite their widespread use in electronic devices, have limited longevity and a strong tendency to degrade under extreme environmental conditions.”

Featured Image courtesy of NASA

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