Industry Intelligence

A Higher Power

Posted by emdtadmin on November 1, 2009

Small and Efficient Nuclear Battery Uses Liquid Semiconductor

Batteries can power anything from small sensors to large systems. While scientists are finding ways to make batteries smaller but even more powerful, problems can arise when they are much larger and heavier than the devices themselves. University of Missouri (MU; Columbia, MO, USA) researchers are developing a nuclear energy source that is smaller, lighter and more efficient.

“To provide enough power, we need certain methods with high energy density,” says Jae Kwon, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at MU. “The radioisotope battery can provide power density that is six orders of magnitude higher than chemical batteries.”

Jae Kwon, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering, and J. David Robertson, chemistry professor and associate director of the research reactor, pose in Kwon’s lab. Kwon and Robertson are collaborating on a project to build a tiny nuclear battery for MEMS devices.

Kwon and his research team have been working on building a small nuclear battery, currently the size and thickness of a US penny, intended to power various micro/nanoelectromechanical systems. Although nuclear batteries can pose concerns, Kwon says they are safe. “People hear the word ‘nuclear’ and think of something very dangerous,” he says. “However, nuclear power sources have already been safely powering a variety of devices, such as pacemakers, space satellites and underwater systems.”

His innovation is not only in the battery’s size, but also in its semiconductor. Kwon’s battery uses a liquid semiconductor rather than a solid semiconductor. “The critical part of using a radioactive battery is that when you harvest the energy, part of the radiation energy can damage the lattice structure of the solid semiconductor,” Kwon says. “By using a liquid semiconductor, we believe we can minimise that problem.”

Kwon has been collaborating with J. David Robertson, chemistry professor and associate director of the MU Research Reactor, and is working to build and test the battery at the facility. In the future, they hope to increase the battery’s power, shrink its size and try with various other materials. Kwon says that the battery could be thinner than a human hair. They’ve also applied for a provisional patent.

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