Key Takeaways:

  • Nano Diamond Battery (NDB) is a startup that claims to develop nuclear diamond batteries using radioactive waste.
  • These batteries could potentially last for thousands of years and power devices like pacemakers or space rovers.
  • The technology relies on nano diamonds and radioactive isotopes to generate electricity.
  • Challenges include scaling the battery size for high-power devices and managing potential nuclear waste from used batteries.
  • NDB plans to release a smartwatch as the first product powered by this technology.

In less than two years, you might be able to buy a smartwatch powered with a nuclear diamond battery that will outlive you and your progeny for generations.

The San Francisco-based startup Nano Diamond Battery (NDB), which bills itself as a “high-power diamond-based alpha, beta, and neutron voltaic battery,” is the source of the potentially revolutionary technology. According to NDB, its products can provide “life-long and green energy.” Consider: Your pacemaker or insulin pump could last the entirety of your life on a single battery (with plenty of extra time to spare). Alternatively, it could power a space rover that would gather regolith samples from Mars for decades without the need for human assistance.

Those are ambitious goals. So, could NDB’s bold claims actually become reality? Or is it a hoax?

What Is a Nuclear Diamond Battery?

NDB employs layers of incredibly small, paneled nano diamonds (one nanometer is one billionth of a meter) to construct its Nano Diamond Battery. Diamonds are perfect for electronic devices because of their remarkable heat conductance. According to a University of Houston College of Engineering publication, they are actually the most well-known natural heat conductor and work three to four times as well as copper or silver.

Chemical vapor deposition, a technique in which gases at extremely high temperatures force carbon to crystallize on a substrate material, is how scientists grow these tiny diamonds. NDB acknowledges that this procedure leads to a financial bottleneck because it requires a lot of energy and money to make the unique diamonds.

Ultimately, Yury Gogotsi, the director of Drexel University in Philadelphia’s A.J. Drexel Nanomaterials Institute, explains that they are “artificially boron-doped diamonds.” (Gogotsi and NDB are not associated.) Diamonds with bluer colors and higher conductivities than typical are produced by that process. True blue diamonds are naturally occurring on Earth, but they’re rarer and even more expensive than artificial blue diamonds.

After locating the nano diamonds, NDB mixes them with radioactive isotopes extracted from nuclear waste. In particular, Gogotsi says that they likely utilize radioactive isotopes of uranium and plutonium that come from the waste of radioactive power plants.

From there, heat is rapidly transferred away from the radioactively decaying isotopes by single-crystal diamonds, which are only a few square millimeters in size. As a result, the process truly produces electricity. According to Nima Golsharifi, CEO of NDB, “the decay sources deposit their energy onto the NDB transducer, which converts the kinetic energy of the incident radiation to electrical energy.”

Are Nuclear Diamond Batteries Too Good To Be True?

It’s likely that you’re wondering what the catch is. There’s a diamond battery out there that really uses nuclear waste, lasts thousands of years, and involves layers of only the most minuscule diamonds?

That’s not quite all that complicated. Each battery cell will produce only a small amount of energy, for one thing, so scientists must combine the cells in huge numbers in order to regularly power large devices—raising the cost a great deal, along with increasing the complexity.

However, Golsharifi highlights the Nano Diamond Battery cells’ small size as a benefit for scalability. “A much smaller NDB cell would be sufficient—take the battery for a wristwatch, for instance—it consumes around two microwatts,” he says. Therefore, the number of stacked cells can be increased to meet the demand if we need to power a different application.

Additionally, there is the matter of deterioration: According to Gogotsi, scientists implant radioactive waste inside the diamond cells, creating a natural structural weakness that will, in most cases, eventually cause some of the cells to fail. When the Nano Diamond Battery becomes widely available in the future, there’s a chance that some of the cells will break or simply go to waste with the devices that they power.

“This creates an issue of nuclear waste, which is inevitable if large numbers of batteries are used,” Gogotsi says. At some point, some of them will break down. While it might not be a problem in space, this will undoubtedly be a problem on Earth.

“This creates an issue of nuclear waste, which is inevitable if large numbers of batteries are used,” Gogotsi says. At some point, some of them will break down. While it might not be a problem in space, this will undoubtedly be a problem on Earth.

How Long Does a Nuclear Diamond Battery Last?

That doesn’t mean the diamond battery isn’t a worthwhile pursuit. Applications for it could include long-term devices like pacemakers or hearing aids if those problems are solved. “Take a child that gets a hearing aid implanted or an elderly person with a pacemaker; people shouldn’t have to go through the possibly traumatizing surgery more than once,” Golsharifi explains.

According to NDB, the batteries may even prove helpful in spacecraft that must operate independently for years at a time. Consider satellites as an example. Part of the basis for NDB’s 28,000-year battery claim is these low-power space applications. When Voyager, the famous spacecraft from NASA, was launched in September 1977 with the intention of studying the outer solar system, it was powered by three “Multi-Hundred Watt Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators” (MHW-RTGs). The initial power output of each generator was only 158 watts, which is less energy than what would be required to run a standard household light fixture for a full year.

Furthermore, if enough of these diamond battery cells are assembled, they could still power electronics that require more energy on Earth, such as mobile phones and LED displays on tablets. However, NDB intends to release a smartwatch as its first commercial product, with a 2022 launch date anticipated. Talk about an heirloom: if that actually occurs, you could own a single watch that runs on a single battery and pass it down through the generations without ever needing a replacement.

Still, NDB plays its cards very close to the vest, divulging few of the nitty gritty details about the Nano Diamond Battery (its power density, for instance). Furthermore, the technology hasn’t even been shown in any videos yet. However, the radioactive diamond battery’s promise remains very much alive, and NDB’s upcoming smartwatch will provide valuable insights into the viability of this technology for other uses. We only have time, so we’ll be waiting.

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