MadSci Network: Physics

Re: do nuclear batteries exist

Date: Tue Sep 5 13:04:23 2000
Posted By: Richard Bersin, Other (pls. specify below), Senior Technical Staff Member, Emergent Technologies
Area of science: Physics
ID: 968144116.Ph


You are correct in thinking that you might make a nuclear battery based 
upon the ability of radioactive elements to emit energetic electrons, 
ionize gases, and generate voltages.  Indeed, there are some cases where 
this is done to generate a battery source.

However the problem with this is that such a battery must be practical to 
carry around and use;  but a battery which could generate enough power to 
be practical for any general portable application would have to use so much 
radioactivity that it would be a terrible hazard.

For example 1 "curie" of radioacticity has about 3E10 radioactive decays 
per second.  The charge of each electron is 1.6E(-19) coulombs.  
Multiplying these together we get a current of 4.8E(-9) coulombs per 
second.  Since 1 ampere is 1 coulomb per second, this is a current of 4.8 
thousandths of a micro ampere! This is very tiny current, impractical for 
most uses. Even if every electron produces 100 additional electrons by the 
ionization of a gas that is still only 480 thousandths of a microampere.   
Much too little current for any practical application.

Even more important, however, is the fact that a "curie" of radioactivity 
is expremely hazardous and requires much shielding (lead,for example)to 
protect a person from radiation burns.  Therefore such a battery is of use 
only where people are not around-as in a scientific satellite, for example.
A "curie" is a lot of radiation and is also very expensive to obtain.

Therefore, although you are correct to think that a nuclear battery could 
be made, the applications for it are extremely limited to very special 
situations.  I complement you on your idea, however;  you researched the 
subject in the Britannica, and got an idea which is a good one!.  

R. Bersin.....

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