Diamond Batteries Created with Nuclear Waste may Soon Provide Source of 'Near Infinite' Power

Radioactive material from a nuclear power plant being decommissioned in the U.K. could soon be used to create "ultra-long-lasting" power sources, researchers say.

Scientists from the University of Bristol, U.K., suggest carbon-14, a radioactive isotope should be extracted from waste at the Berkeley power station in Gloucestershire and recycled to generate energy as part of a project revealed back in 2016 which produced a "nuclear-powered battery."

Previously, researchers created a type of diamond that could generate an electrical current when placed in close proximity to radioactive material.

Experts now say their unique use of carbon-14 could potentially provide power on a "near-infinite basis" while helping to boost clean electricity generation.

The Bristol University work is being done as part of a project dubbed Advanced Self-Powered sensor units in Intense Radiation Environments, or ASPIRE.

Professor Tom Scott, who is leading the ongoing research, said the nuclear-based batteries could be extremely helpful as they operate in extreme environments, where traditional forms of power would be lacking. In the future they could even power satellites, he suggested.

"Over the past few years we have been developing ultra-low powered sensors that harvest energy from radioactive decay," Scott said in a statement. "This project is at quite an advanced stage now and we have tested the batteries in sensors in places as extreme as the top of a volcano."

The Berkeley station, the U.K.'s first commercial nuclear site of its kind to be decommissioned, was closed in 1989. Work to remove the dormant nuclear waste started this month, but it will not be safe for humans to set foot in the reactor cores until 2074, the BBC reported.

A second nuclear plant in the region, Oldbury station, which is located on the south bank of the River Severn, closed in 2012 and is also in the process of decommissioning.

The team's initial research into "diamond batteries" used Nickel-63 as the source of radiation, however attention turned to carbon-14 as it was deemed to be more efficient.

The university researchers found carbon-14 was concentrated at the surface of graphite blocks that are used to sustain reactions in nuclear power plants. After being extracted, carbon-14 can be put into diamond, which offers protection to humans by containing the radiation.

"Carbon-14 was chosen as a source because it emits a short-range radiation, which is quickly absorbed by any solid material," Neil Fox, of the University of Bristol's School of Chemistry, said at the time.

"This would make it dangerous to ingest or touch with your naked skin, but safely held within diamond, no short-range radiation can escape. In fact, diamond is the hardest substance known to man, there is literally nothing we could use that could offer more protection."

Scott added: "By encapsulating radioactive material inside diamonds, we turn a long-term problem of nuclear waste into a nuclear-powered battery and a long-term supply of clean energy."

This week, Scott suggested benefits would not be limited to the researchers, noting it would also make the process of decommissioning easier.

He said: "The aim is to have a factory based at one of the former power stations in the South West that takes carbon-14 isotopes directly from the graphite blocks for use in diamond batteries.

"This would...reduce the radioactivity of the remaining material, making it easier and safer to manage. With the majority of the U.K.'s nuclear power plants set to go offline in the next 10 to 15 years, this presents a huge opportunity to recycle a large amount of material to generate power for so many great uses." The U.K. has up to 95,000 tonnes of graphite blocks, the team said.

Berkeley Nuclear Power Station
Aerial view of Berkeley Nuclear Power Station on February 05, 2017. David Goddard/Getty