At the cutting edge of nuclear waste research, a team of chemists and physicists from the University of Bristol are set to turn “trash” into something of a “treasure”.
Building on their previous work from 2016, the team hope to recycle radioactive waste from decommissioned power stations by turning it into a power supply that can last for thousands of years. Their first target is the Berkeley Power Station in Gloucestershire, where work to remove waste products from the plant began at the start of the year.
At the center of the team’s work is carbon-14. In nuclear reactors, the radioactive element Uranium is surrounded by graphite blocks, which act as a moderator for the process of nuclear fission. Once exposed to the process, these graphite blocks generate the radioactive carbon-14 isotope.
The group’s research looked into extracting the carbon-14, which is concentrated at the surface of the blocks, to then incorporate into a diamond. When connected in a circuit, it was found that these diamonds become a source of electricity. As carbon-14 has a half-life of over 5,000 years, these diamond batteries with “near-infinite power” could serve many purposes.
After being encased in a non-radioactive layer of diamond, the batteries could be used in medical equipment, such as hearing aids or pacemakers. They could even be used in space exploration to allow spacecraft and satellites to travel more extreme distances than previously achieved.
Since the first announcement of this technology, the project known as ASPIRE (Advanced Self-Powered sensor units in Intense Radiation Environments) has continued to develop.
“This project is at quite an advanced stage now and we have tested the batteries in sensors in places as extreme as the top of a volcano,” reported Professor Tom Scott, the ASPIRE lead researcher and Director of the South West Nuclear Hub, in a statement.
However, the aim of the project is not only to manufacture the end-product. Reducing the radioactivity of the graphite blocks, stored 8 meters (26 feet) underground at Berkeley Power Station, ensures the waste is easier and safer to manage. There are currently over 95,000 tonnes (106,000 US tons) of radioactive blocks in the UK.
“With the majority of the UK’s nuclear power plants set to go offline in the next 10-15 years this presents a huge opportunity to recycle a large amount of material to generate power for so many great uses,” Professor Scott explained.
The team’s ultimate goal is to set up a factory based at one of the former power stations in the South West. According to the Independent, the scientists hope to have a pilot factory producing the batteries within five years at the Berkeley site.