GreenTech: The Nuclear Battery

Tucked away in the rolling hills of Tennessee is the town of Oak Ridge… you wouldn’t notice it if you were to drive through the state. But, if you’re a history buff, you’ll know that this little town was instrumental in changing the trajectory of the last world conflict. That’s because this little town was born to house those that would build the atomic bomb, which would later go on to help America strongarm enemies. It was called the Manhattan Project.

Today, that same town is brewing something special. A brilliant nuclear chemist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Dr. Clarice Phelps, is helping NASA build nuclear space batteries that use plutonium, and we’re particularly interested in the nuclear part. These incredibly powerful batteries generate electricity using decaying radioactive isotopes… and they’re powerful enough to propel giant spacecraft through the expanse.

From what we’ve been reading, there’s an even newer type of nuclear battery coming down the pike called a nuclear diamond battery. It could end up being a big deal, and there’s one in development by a startup named Nano Diamond Battery (NDB) that could have enough juice for 28,000 years. It uses what’s called nuclear transmutation (changing one element into another) to convert carbon atoms into radioactive diamonds. Wow!

NDB says that these diamonds release energy over time, and it’s ideal for things like pacemakers, insulin pumps, and other important devices humans need to survive. The company is working on prototypes, and has plans to bring a product to market in the next couple of years. Headquartered in San Francisco, California, NDB was founded in 2019 by Dr. Nima Golsharifi and Prof. Sir Michael Pepper.

They raised over $1 million in seed funds from investors like Y Combinator, SOSV, and Uncorrelated Ventures… and they have their plate full of sharp minds. We’re talking talent that includes an R&D team lead by a former physicist from Cambridge and the winner of an Institute of Physics Isaac Newton Medal. And, when leadership talks, they reference discovering what others “do not see” and it caught our eye. We find value in maintaining high standards, this is what it takes to be first.

So… maybe NDB will be first, but will there be companies with technologies capable of jumping into this if it turns out to be something? Maybe… for instance, California-based Diamond Foundry, which already develops more sustainable synthetic diamonds. And… it seems there are serious efforts being put into research on nuclear diamond batteries, and we do mean the letter agencies. As we know, these types of innovations bleed into the public eventually.

One such agency is DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which does research for our United States Department of Defense. We mentioned NASA earlier, but didn’t touch on nuclear diamond batteries, but they are also interested in these. And, as you can imagine, there’s plenty of interest from the commercial space community as well. Think how fast we could commercialize space with that much battery power… there are a number of universities on the case as well.

Obviously, this all sounds amazing, but there are hurdles we still have to cross. For instance, the cost of production, which is currently estimated to be in the millions. Also, we have to work on the safety involved in quite a few aspects of making these batteries. From making sure the diamond is stable and ensuring steady energy flow to making the energy less dangerous to extract. After that… Katie, bar the door.

We must say… we’re quite curious as to what it will do to the fossil fuels space when these mighty batteries finally become reality at any meaningful scale. How quickly would that space become the “dinosaur”? These batteries are more efficient (think more power, less materials), more reliable, longer-lasting, cost less to maintain, and are cleaner and more sustainable. Not to mention the cracks it would open up for innovation to slip into…