The application of nuclear energy in batteries is typically unheard of. When we speak of nuclear energy or are exposed to it through pop culture (Hollywood exploits the nuclear warfare subject quite often), it usually reminds us of bombs, aircraft carriers, or power plants. But a Chinese company aims to change that. Beijing-based Betavolt has developed an “atomic energy battery” that can generate electricity for half a century automatically, without any charging.
What the hell is an atomic energy battery? How much electricity can it even generate? And does it warrant your attention?
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Chinese battery company Betavolt has claimed that it has developed a commercial-grade nuclear battery that can run for 50 years without any charging. It’s not for EVs, but the tech looks good on paper.
Here’s what we know so far. Atomic energy batteries, also called nuclear or radioisotope batteries, harness the energy released by nuclear isotopes when they decay, said Betavolt in a press release. This decaying radioactive energy is converted into electrical power using semiconductor converters.
Betavolt has taken a unique approach to this underlying theory. Its scientists used electrons emitted by a radioactive material called nickel-63 (Ni-63) to generate electricity. They developed a special diamond semiconductor, only 10 microns thick, or one-fifth the size of an average human hair. The scientists then placed a two-micron sheet of Ni-63 between two of these diamond semiconductors to generate power.
The final product, named BV100, would be the world’s first nuclear battery, Betavolt claimed. It would generate 100 microwatts, at three volts, from a unit smaller than a coin (One watt is equivalent to a million microwatts). It can generate electricity every minute; 8.64 joules per day, and 3,153 joules per year, Betavolt claimed. A slightly bigger battery, capable of producing 1 watt of power, is coming in 2025.
The benefits of this formula appear impressive on paper, and that’s why some of the mainstream lithium-ion battery makers should at least take note. The nuclear battery is 10 times more energy dense than a ternary lithium battery, and it could potentially store 3,300 megawatt-hours in a one-gram unit. Since it generates electricity automatically for 50 years, there’s no hassle of plugging it in, ever, the company claimed.
Betavolt didn’t respond to InsideEVsʼ request for comment at the time of publication.
Moreover, it is fire and explosion-proof and can withstand gunshots. It can also apparently function normally in the range of 120 degrees Celcius and -60C. Furthermore, its radioactive materials turn into stable copper isotopes after the decay, and hence it’s free from complex recycling requirements and is environmentally friendly. Use cases include smartphones that don’t need charging and drones with a limitless range.
But the press release leaves several questions unanswered. Its use in EVs seems theoretically impossible, at least for now, with such a small amount of electricity generation capacity. But could that be possible in the future? What are the regulatory challenges or approvals required for implementing nuclear batteries in consumer products? And while it’s claimed to be safe, Betavolt hasn’t addressed how safety concerns associated with nuclear technology might impact consumer acceptance.
This company is only two years old, and this project has just reached its pilot stage; enough reasons to take these claims with a grain of salt. But if anything, this showcases the breakneck development pace of battery companies and start-ups, who are constantly innovating to solve the issues that plague the battery industry—charging, long-term degradation, safety, and reliability, among others.