Tritium Batteries as a Source of Nuclear Power
Before we discuss tritium’s potential to act as a power source for a variety of devices, it’s important to first understand what tritium is.
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that can be found in Earth’s upper atmosphere and/or artificially produced in nuclear reactors. Unlike other more widely-recognized radioactive isotopes—such as plutonium and uranium—tritium is considered relatively benign.
What Is a Tritium Betavoltaic Battery?
Traditional batteries rely on chemical reactions to create energy. This causes them to deteriorate quickly, which, without proper maintenance, results in electrolyte breakdown.
Tritium batteries, on the other hand, rely on the decay of an isotope which releases low-energy beta particles that perpetuate the flow of electrons.
Betavoltaic cells have beta emitters—small radioactive sources—that generate electrons to trigger diode junctions. When the diode junctions are triggered, the cycle continues, freeing an electron and causing a current to flow.
This current allows the battery to act as a betavoltaic hybrid source for the device it’s powering. The beta particles emitted by these isotopes have extremely low energy and radiation that can be easily blocked.
Characteristics of Tritium Betavoltaic Batteries
There are a few important characteristics that differentiate betavoltaic nuclear batteries from other batteries. One of which is the lack of leftover nuclear waste. After a tritium battery runs out of power, it decays to a stable state.
Once the tritium reaches a stable state, it will no longer emit radiation, thus posing no threat to the surrounding environment. The capacity to power devices with nuclear power but leave no trace of waste minimizes damage to the ecosystem and protects our natural resources.
Another trait—perhaps tritium’s most impressive—is the lifespan of this technology. Radioactive isotopes can last a very long time. We currently measure isotope lifespan by half-life, or the amount of time it takes for half of a radioactive material to decay.
Uranium-238 has an estimated half-life of 4.5 billion years, but we know that it holds a lot of energy and is dangerous as a result. Tritium only has a half-life of 12.3 years, but its particles are easily contained and can therefore be used for practical applications.
City Labs NanoTritium™ Battery Applications
City Labs is constantly working to improve our NanoTritium™ battery technology, and we’re now taking advanced orders for our P200 series NanoTritium™ Betavoltaics. The P200 series is optimized to provide more power and last longer in a variety of situations.
While many of the devices we have developed since 2008 are still in use, we’re always improving our technology and products that we offer to partners and customers.
Current City Labs Betavoltaic-Ready Supported Applications
Our P200 Series Betavoltaic 10 µW class battery is already primed to power some of the following devices:
- Power burst capacitors
- Charge pumps
- Select microprocessors
- LiPON batteries
- Security and defense technology
The opportunities to further develop these batteries are everywhere. As their lifespan gets longer and their power output continues to increase, nuclear betavoltaic cells will be used for more and more devices in a variety of industries.
Tritium Batteries in Extreme Conditions
Tritium batteries have a unique and characteristic toughness not shared by many other power sources. Since the 1950s, scientists have been studying how to improve low power electronics; even through decades of research and development for chemical batteries, they still can’t operate over dramatic temperature differences without compromising power, longevity, or size.
Devices powered by City Labs’ NanoTritium™ technology have shown no diminution of operational capabilities when subjected to extreme temperatures of -55ºC to +150ºC. Previous research has shown that while extreme temperatures may temporarily affect a battery’s performance, once the temperature is returned to normal, the output restabilizes.
This makes tritium batteries an ideal choice for sensors or devices which are required to operate in harsh environments or under extreme temperature changes.
Tritium Batteries for Cardiac Pacemakers
As City Labs improves its products, the range of potential applications significantly increases. NanoTritium™ batteries are being tested for use in unattended sensors, microelectronics, and even medical implants, such as pacemakers.
It’s important to remember that tritium is a relatively benign radioactive isotope. A historical review of betavoltaic batteries reveals that lithium captured the pacemaker battery market because of radiation exposure fears, even though the nuclear-powered pacemakers that were given to some patients in the 1970s had been deemed safe and effective.
The thought of a nuclear battery powering a human heart seems like a dangerous ode to science fiction, but it’s not. In fact, betavoltaic cells are already being used to power pacemakers.
Replacing batteries in a pacemaker is impossible; if your pacemaker battery dies, you will need a full new pacemaker implanted. Using long-term, low-power betavoltaics can minimize the amount of procedures a heart patient will have throughout their life.
Tritium Batteries in Remote Areas
Performing heart surgery to replace a battery is dangerous, but some battery replacement operations are even more difficult–like changing a battery on the Moon or Mars. Our batteries last a very long time and hold up under extreme conditions, reducing the amount of necessary maintenance or battery replacements.
Putting these batteries into small wireless sensors that are difficult to access allows for a more efficient and reliable long-term energy source. These sensors can continue monitoring factors like temperature, pressure, and vibration over long periods of time. When something occurs that passes a certain threshold, the devices will report the issue wirelessly to notify the necessary party.
These sensors could be used in conjunction with small modular reactors (SMRs) and large-scale nuclear reactors. Many of these sensors are placed in difficult to access places, making tritium batteries the ideal solution to the problem of difficult battery replacement.
Limitations of Tritium and Betavoltaic Batteries
The limitations associated with tritium batteries are tightly bound to their benefits. While these betavoltaic cells do not wear down as quickly as other batteries, they do slowly decrease their output over time.
As an isotope begins to decay, the tritium battery power output will simultaneously get lower. Typically, devices that run on tritium power will not require that much energy. The benefit of these power sources is that the diminishing output is constant and predictable.
There are isotopes that can last significantly longer than 20 years and still emit an adequate charge, but they are much harder to make safe for human use. As such, City Labs and other companies will continue researching ways in which betavoltaic nuclear batteries can be improved.
Tritium Battery Power Output
How much does a tritium battery decay over a 20-year lifespan? Around 68%.
Initially, a P200 series betavoltaic battery will output the full value (10 µW). After around 10 years acting as a power source, the battery will output approximately 5.674 µW. After a full 20 years, the P200 will still be emitting around 3.219 µW.
If your company manufactures a device that only requires 3 µW to run, our NanoTritium™ P200 batteries could theoretically keep them at full power for 20+ years.
Check Out City Labs’ Tritium Battery
As the research continues and the technology improves, the practical uses of tritium batteries will only expand. Betavoltaic cells are already being used for sensors, controllers, and other microelectronics.