2024 marks the 40th anniversary of the iconic Terminator franchise, which has captivated audiences with its thrilling storyline and futuristic concepts. One intriguing question that often arises when watching these films is: How does a time-traveling robot, like the Terminator, never have to worry about running out of battery power during its mission?
Maybe in the future depicted in the movie, they possess advanced technology that allows them to operate with remarkable efficiency and longevity.
The future is now. On January 8, Betavolt Technology, the Beijing-based start-up, announced the successful development of the world’s first micro-atomic energy battery. In a press conference, company CEO Zhang Wei revealed they have created an innovative new power source that combines nickel-63 isotope decay and China’s first diamond semiconductor module. This integration allows the battery to be dramatically miniaturized while maintaining low production costs.
At just 15x15x5 mm, smaller than a coin, the BB100 battery produces 100 microwatts of energy safely and stably for 50 years without recharging. The nuclear battery generates power every second and minute, producing 8.64 joules of energy per day and 3,153 joules of energy per year. The modular design means multiple batteries can be connected to deliver higher output. The stable, zero-emission energy could help power AI and autonomous technologies driving China’s next revolution.
At its core is the company’s unique ability to dope diamond, the holy grail of semiconductors, into large wafers only 10 micrometers thin. This enables the radioactive nickel to efficiently convert its decay into electricity. It has entered the pilot production stage and will soon be mass produced and released on the market. The battery can meet the power supply needs in long-endurance multi-scenario applications such as aerospace, AI devices, medical equipment, MEMS systems, advanced sensors, small drones, and microrobots. This new energy innovation will help China gain an early advantage in the new round of the AI technology revolution.
Atomic energy batteries, also known as nuclear batteries or radioactive isotope batteries, operate by converting the energy released from the decay of nuclear isotopes into electrical energy through semiconductor converters. This technology was extensively researched by the US and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Currently, thermoelectric nuclear batteries are used for aerospace applications, but they are large, heavy, and expensive, making them unsuitable for civilian use.
Betavolt, however, has taken a different technical approach. They have developed a unique semiconductor made of single-crystal diamond capable of generating a current through the β particles (electrons) emitted from the radioactive source nickel-63. By placing a 2 micrometer-thick nickel-63 thin film between two diamond semiconductor converters, the decay energy of the radioactive source can be converted into electrical current, creating an independent modular unit.
The company plans to launch a 1W battery in 2025. With regulatory approval, atomic batteries have the potential to power devices like phones indefinitely without the need for recharging. They can also provide continuous power to drones, which currently have limited flight times of around 15 minutes.
Unlike chemical batteries such as lithium-ion batteries, atomic energy batteries are physical batteries with significantly higher energy density – 1 gram of battery is capable of storing 3,300 watt-hours of energy. Also, unlike chemical batteries, atomic batteries are not prone to catching fire or exploding when punctured or subjected to accidental damage. Additionally, due to their 50-year self-generating nature, atomic batteries are not limited by cycle life like chemical batteries, which typically have around 2,000 charge-discharge cycles.
In addition, atomic energy batteries offer stable power generation that remains unaffected by harsh environments and varying loads. They can operate within a temperature range of -60 to 120 degrees Celsius without any changes in performance and do not experience self-discharge. Betavolt claims that the atomic batteries are completely safe, emitting no external radiation. This makes them suitable for medical devices implanted in the human body, such as pacemakers, artificial hearts, and cochlear implants.
Furthermore, atomic batteries are environmentally friendly. After the decay period, the radioactive source nickel-63 isotope transforms into stable copper isotopes, posing no threats, hazards, or pollution to the environment. Consequently, nuclear batteries do not require expensive recycling processes like existing chemical batteries.
Currently, Betavolt has already registered patents in Beijing and is in the process of registering PCT global patents. And the startup is reported to be collaborating with various nuclear research institutions and universities in China to further advance atomic batteries. They aim to develop batteries with longer service lives ranging from 2 to 30 years using isotopes such as strontium-90, palladium-147, and deuterium.