China’s Betavolt has announced a nuclear-energy battery based on nickel. Targeting applications such as aerospace, medical devices and autonomous sensors, the atomic battery delivers 100 microwatts at 3 volts and is claimed to have a lifespan of fifty years. Despite the low power output, the startup concept could eventually power smartphones, putting an end to recharging.
Atomic or nuclear batteries are nothing new. They’re particularly useful for systems that need to operate unattended for extended periods, such as spacecraft and military surveillance equipment. Until lithium-ion batteries became a better alternative, they also powered pacemakers.
Betavolt’s innovation is the use of nickel-63 in a commercial betavoltaic device, which harnesses beta-radiation to generate an electric current in semiconductor materials (alternatively, thermal atomic batteries extract power from the heat coming off radioactive materials). Advantages of nickel-63 include a long half-life (about 100 years) and the relatively mild nature of the emitted beta-radiation, preventing it from damaging electronics and human tissue.