Saturday, August 29, 2020

Diamond batteries? Unlikely.

The start of the academic year at Rice has been very time-intensive, leading to the low blogging frequency.  I will be trying to remedy that, and once some of the dust settles I may well create a twitter account to point out as-they-happen results and drive traffic this way.  

In the meantime, there has been quite a bit of media attention this week paid to the claim by NDB that they can make nanodiamond-based batteries with some remarkable properties.  This idea was first put forward in this video.  The eye-popping part of the news release is this:  "And it can scale up to electric vehicle sizes and beyond, offering superb power density in a battery pack that is projected to last as long as 90 years in that application – something that could be pulled out of your old car and put into a new one."

The idea is not a new one.  The NDB gadget is a take on a betavoltaic device.  Take a radioactive source that is a beta emitter - in this case, 14C which decays into 14N plus an antineutrino plus an electron with an average energy of 49 keV - and capture the electrons and ideally the energy from the decay.  Betavoltaic devices produce power for a long time, depending on the half-life of the radioactive species (here, 5700 years).  The problem is, the power of these systems is very low, which greatly limits their utility.  For use in applications when you need higher instantaneous power, the NDB approach appears to be to use the betavoltaic gizmo to trickle-charge an integrated supercapacitor that can support high output powers.

To get a sense of the numbers:  If you had perfectly efficient capture of the decay energy, if you had 14 grams of 14C (a mole), my estimate of the total power available is 13 mW. (((6.02e23 *49000 eV *1.602e-19 J/eV)/2)/(5700 yrs*365.25 days/yr*86400)). If you wanted to charge the equivalent of a full Tesla battery (80 kW-h), it would take (80000 W-hr*3600 s/hr)/(0.013 W) = 2.2e10 seconds. Even if you had 10 kg of pure 14C, that would take you 180 days.

Now, the actual image in the press release-based articles shows a chip-based battery labeled "100 nW", which is very reasonable.  This technology is definitely clever, but it just does not have the average power densities needed for an awful lot of applications.


Anonymous said...

In any case, this battery sure beats having radioactive heavy element power sources instead. Could these batteries replace atomic batteries for use in space that NASA uses currently?

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon, I don't think so - it's just a question of scale. Typical radiothermoelectric generators put out hundreds of watts or more in thermal power and tens of watts or more in electrical power. I don't see how 14C via betavoltaics can get there.