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Run Your Laptop On Nuclear Energy 607

Reader zymano points to this news.com artcle on innovations in portable power sources. Would you feel comfortable with a radioactive power source inside your laptop or cellphone?
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Run Your Laptop On Nuclear Energy

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  • by Gizzmonic ( 412910 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @03:54PM (#4662312) Homepage Journal
    Missle command on a nuclear powered laptop? That would turn my mind into a buttery crazy straw!
  • by TheGreenLantern ( 537864 ) <thegreenlntrn@yahoo.com> on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @03:55PM (#4662323) Homepage Journal
    Would you feel comfortable with a radioactive power source inside your laptop or cellphone?

    Sure, as long as it's not that yellow radiation.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @03:55PM (#4662332)
    An atomic pile the size of a walnut? Nonsense! Even the greatest technicians of the Empire could not do such a thing. Your upstart Foundation must be populated by wizards!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @03:55PM (#4662334)
    Look out radioactive man
  • why not? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by C_nemo ( 520601 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @03:55PM (#4662336)
    i feel comfortable with a nuclear detector in my fire alarm

    • Re:why not? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by JesseL ( 107722 )
      But do you spend hours with your fire alarm in your pocket or on your lap?
    • Unfortunately, such a battery would be too big for a laptop (unless you can significantly reduce the power requirements). Based on Cornell's press release [cornell.edu], they plan to use Nickel-63 with a half-life of about a 100 years. So how much Nickel-63 will they need?

      Looking at a handy dandy table of the isotopes gives a half-life of 92 years and a decay energy of 67 keV per disintegration for Nickel-63. Also, it has an atomic mass of 63 g/mol. 1 Joule equals 6.24E+15 keV, so to produce 1 Joule of energy you would need:

      6.24E+15 kEV/67 keV/disintegration = 9.32E+13 disintegrations

      One Watt is a J/s, so to produce a Watt of power you would need 9.32E+13 disintegrations per second. So, how much Nickel-63 is needed to get this many disintegrations per second?

      9.32E+13 / (1-exp(1/2903299200*ln(2)) = 3.90E+23 atoms

      (Note 2903299200s = 92 years). Dividing by Avogadros Number and multyplying by the atomic mass gives a mass requirement of 40.8g for each Watt. A typical laptop computer consumes ~50 Watts giving a required mass of ~2 kg.

      While a bit high, this probably isn't too bad, especially since future technologies can probably lower the power requirement to 10-20 Watts. However, the above calculations assume 100% efficiency. I have no idea what the actual efficiencies are, but they are likely to be less than 50% since the proposed battery uses a mechanical process to produce the electricity. This alone would double the mass. In addition this is only the mass of the nickel. The other components and any shielding are likely to double or triple the mass, so the overall battery would likely weigh 8-12 kg (18-26 lbs). Much too heavy for a laptop.

      This is not to say there aren't many very low-power applications for which such a battery would be ideal, but a laptop isn't one of them unless the power requirement can be dropped below about 10W.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @03:56PM (#4662340)
    "Why worry. Each one of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on our back. Switch me on"
  • by RadioheadKid ( 461411 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @03:56PM (#4662343)
    Would you feel comfortable with a radioactive power source inside your laptop or cellphone?

    Inside a cell phone or laptop near my balls! Have to get some lead boxers...
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Have to get some lead boxers...

      Why? scared that superman is gay or something?

    • by RealAlaskan ( 576404 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:12PM (#4662532) Homepage Journal
      Would you feel comfortable with the radioactive power source inside you? From the article:
      Lal said that medical device makers and cell phone makers have shown interest in commercial applications of the atomic battery, adding that consumers may see the new batteries in cell phones in about three to four years.
      So, when you get old, your pacemaker will probably have a radioactive battery, and that will probably seem very comforting indeed.

      Batteries which capture the electrons given off during some sorts of radioactive decay are old hat. If the article is to be believed, this is something very different. Also from the article:

      ... a team from Cornell University last month unveiled a device that converts the energy stored in radioactive material directly into mechanical motion, which in turn moves the parts of a miniscule machine to generate electricity. This type of battery could supply power for decades, said Amit Lal, a professor at Cornell's electrical and computer engineering department and the lead researcher.
      ``Converts the energy ... directly into mechanical motion''? I guess this would be sort of like the little solar engines, that have paddles which are shiny on one side and black on the other and spin in sunlight? Sounds as if they might have oversimplified when they paraphrased, maybe.
    • by anzha ( 138288 )

      Obviously you want some boxers made of this stuff [yahoo.com].

      It's a joke, people...The N word shouldn't automatically provoke FUD when it's mentioned...

  • New regulations (Score:3, Insightful)

    by bsharitt ( 580506 ) <bsharitt AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @03:56PM (#4662348) Homepage Journal
    If these came into wide use, the US govenment would probably impose harsh export restrictions, since there is a small amout of radiation.
  • by codeonezero ( 540302 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @03:56PM (#4662354)
    In the infamous words of Fry from Futurama
    (On being scanned by some radiation emiting device)

    "Ouch, my sperm"


  • Why, you'd save a fortune in glo-in-the-dark condoms :-)
  • Potential Risk? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Remik ( 412425 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @03:57PM (#4662361)
    "The Department of Transportation last month removed one hurdle to the commercial acceptance of fuel cells powered by methanol by ruling that they could be taken on airplanes. The issue was that these fuel cells contain methanol, which is a flammable liquid."

    I don't see them being so quick to remove a similar hurdle for nuclear fuel.

    But, hey, if they make nuclear powered cell phones, the radiation would treat the supposed cancer risk. Right?

    • Re:Potential Risk? (Score:3, Informative)

      by DirtyJ ( 576100 )
      I don't see them being so quick to remove a similar hurdle for nuclear fuel.

      Why not? What are you going to do with a radioactive lump of stuff? I suppose you could try to choke someone with it or shoot people with beta particles...

      This isn't the same sort of material that gets used in nuclear weapons; it's just isotopic material which decays with a characteristic timescale so that a steady stream of particles shoot away from it. You can use the momentum imparted by these particles to power a small generator - sort of like water turning a turbine in a dam or something (not exactly, but you get the picture...).

  • by aao-brad ( 542582 ) <brad_p@NOSpAm.comcast.net> on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @03:57PM (#4662364)
    ...a whole new definition of blue screen of death. "Error #10012 - Meltdown eminent. "
    • by C0LDFusion ( 541865 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:20PM (#4662633) Journal
      "An fatal operation at 0x004a3542 has occured. YOU will be terminated."

      And if you take it on the airplane, the press confererence:

      Reporter: "What was the cause of the explosion?"

      NTSB Guy: "Windows. If only he used linux...or AT LEAST MacOS X...this disater could've been averted."

      Two hours later, at the White House...

      Bush: "We have found that the explosion was caused by Windows. By making Windows, Microsoft is a terrorist organization. This morning, troops invaded the evil leader Bill Gates's compound in Redmond."

      Two Weeks Later:

      Reporter: "Have you found Gates?"

      Rumsfeld: "We have Special Forces scouring the area, but we haven't found him. But in order to follow our current policy on the War on Terror, we'll now accuse a random country of being Evil. (::Rumsfeld walks over to a lottery tumbler::) This year's "Evil Nation" is... MADAGASCAR! Alrighty. Now, then. You know the drill. Madagascar currently is in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Now go back to your news bureaus and begin the punditry. That is the end of this conference."
    • by Interrobang ( 245315 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:20PM (#4662637) Journal
      a whole new definition of blue screen of death

      Yes. A literal definition. :)

      And speaking of literal definitions:

      Error #10012 - Meltdown eminent."

      I think you mean "Meltdown imminent," rather than, say, to substitute, meltdown "prominent," "lofty," or "well-placed;" although I will admit such a catastrophe would be pretty egregious.
  • Even more danger? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by new_breed ( 569862 )
    First we had that whole fuss about how prolonged use of a mobile phone could cause cancer..And now, you make your head glow as well! Great..can't they invent one that uses solar power instead?
    • Personally I'd rather have a tidal powered cell phone. That way I wouldn't feel so bad about flushing it after my boss has called me 12 times on a Sunday.
  • Think of the money my girlfriend will save on birth control pills!
  • Leet (Score:5, Funny)

    by grub ( 11606 ) <slashdot@grub.net> on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @03:58PM (#4662376) Homepage Journal

    With a nuclear powered notebook on my lap I could save a load of money on future child support payments.

  • by Blimey85 ( 609949 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @03:58PM (#4662377)
    No need for neon inside your case kiddies, the nuclear power source glows in the dark. And if you want to kick it up a notch, try our brand new nuclear powered monitors... true glowing beauty that you have to see to... hey... my face hurts... my whole body... feels like it's on fire... what's going on... ahh.. the burning.....ahhh!!!!
  • New trend of impotence traced to new laptops carrying radioactive power plants as batteries...
  • ...they had a nuclear-like reactor on their back, and they felt SO cool.

    So would I with a nuclear-powered laptop (how much battery life do you have? Oh, a couple thousand years).

    As long as I won't drop it (you'll notice if I will).

  • by Christianfreak ( 100697 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @03:59PM (#4662390) Homepage Journal
    The "Cellphones cause cancer" groups would defenatly have fits over that. But the Government might find it useful. I can just see Bush on TV, "If we don't stop the evil terrorists(tm), they could turn your cellphone into a nuclear holocost. Think of the children!"

    In all seriousness if the manufacturers can guarentee that its safe I'm all for portable power that lasts 200 years.
    • by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:09PM (#4662513) Homepage
      In all seriousness if the manufacturers can guarentee that its safe I'm all for portable power that lasts 200 years.

      Screw that. I want the manufacturer, a government agency, and a dozen or so independent non-profit organizations to guarantee it is safe. I mean, we saw well letting the company tell us what is safe worked with tobacco. ;)

      But do that, and yeah, I'd use one. :)
      • by Tackhead ( 54550 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:37PM (#4662845)
        > Screw that. I want the manufacturer, a government agency, and a dozen or so independent on-profit organizations to guarantee it is safe. I mean, we saw well letting the company tell us what is safe worked with tobacco. ;)

        Actually, this is one of the few cases wherein if you don't trust the gub'mint (setter of standards for rad-leakage) or the corporates (laptop manufacturer), you can just as easily verify for yourself.

        Alpha: If you're not convinced from the laws of physics that alphas will be stopped by the casing of your laptop, build a cloud chamber with some dry ice and alcohol, and sit your laptop on top of it. Observe the lack of straight fat traces emanating from your laptop.

        Beta: Ditto. You can also build a detector for charged particles out of gold leaf and leave it next to your laptop for a few hours, or you can just eyeball your cloud chamber for longer traces with occasional kinks as electrons are deflected in the medium.

        Gamma: OK, your cloud chamber won't work as well here, so drop $300 for a pocket geiger counter [scientificsonline.com] from a place like Edmund Scientific. (It slices, it dices, it's something no kid who grew up during the Cold War should be without! :-)

        Cloud chambers [geocities.com] are easy to build [berkeley.edu], and fun to watch. Get an old radium-dial watch or clock, place a blue LED next to it, and you've got yourself a "nuclear lava lamp".

        Case modders alert! You could replace the top flat part of a PC with it and the cool air from the base of the chamber would ooze down into your case, providing a little bit of extra cooling. along with one hell of a l33t case mod - permanently mount your rad-source in the middle of the chamber, mask off and paint a "radioactive" symbol in the plexiglass cover, with a small source directly beneath the center of the rad-symbol, and illuminate it with a one of those traffic-light/borg-cube-green LEDs, and bring a few blocks of dry ice to the LAN party! W00T!

        OK, back on topic. The bottom line is that measuring the amount of ionizing radiation leacking from a nuke-powered laptop is trivial, and if you compare the (lack of) radiation coming from your laptop from the (big pile of) background radiation coming from the bricks in your house, the glaze on your grandma's dishes, and the potassium in that bundle of bananas, or just from living in the Rockies, you just might learn something about risk assessment - something about which those in the knee-jerk anti-nuclear movement would prefer to keep you in the dark.

    • In all seriousness if the manufacturers can guarentee that its safe I'm all for portable power that lasts 200 years.

      That's just great. Someone drops his pager in a movie theatre, and the damn thing beeps for two centuries before someone can find and kill it.

      Also, who wants a laptop that has to be disposed of as nuclear waste? It's fine for pacemakers and that sort of thing--there don't need to be that many in circulation (pun not intended) and nobody is going to be trading in for a newer model every eighteen months.

      Finally, have you seen some of the stupid things that people do to their consumer electronics? (Backing over a laptop in the driveway comes to mind.) This could lead to releases of potentially hazardous levels of radiation--perhaps inadvertant ingestion of radioactive material from a small leak in the casing.

  • I would guess that there is simply too much irrational behavior relative to nuclear power to make these batteries all that popular. The irony is how quickly we ignore the supposed dangers from cell phone radio waves. The difference seems to be the emotional baggage that follows anything "nukyoolar". Too bad, too.
  • by TomHoward ( 576101 ) <tom AT howardfamily DOT id DOT au> on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:00PM (#4662402) Homepage
    Would you feel comfortable with a radioactive power source inside your laptop or cellphone?

    So long as it wasn't running Windows.

  • Not for me (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Rossalina W Sanchez ( 575882 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:00PM (#4662403) Homepage Journal
    I think the only real problem I would have with it is that there might be some problems later on when I get pregnant. There are still a lot of issues with radiation regarding females and felopian tubes that we don't know about yet and will take years for science to find out about.

    Remember all the mutant freak babies that were born in some Nevada towns after the Army was performing nuclear tests back in the 40's?

    Sure this thing sounds safe but are you going to risk giving birth to a retard or a one armed baby when they really don't have any conclusive studies yet? I'm not.

  • Sorry, but I refuse to put a source of radiation powerful enough to run my laptop or cell phone that close to my brain or testicles. I can't think clearly without all of the above, and don't want to mess them up for myself. (Note that cell phone antennas help place the radiation away from the head, when you get a cell phone with a decent external antenna, so they're of lesser risk, and only affect my brain, not my reproductive organs.)
  • Sounds like something taken from the book Snow Crash. If only the book or Stephenson had an actual web site.
  • by stubear ( 130454 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:02PM (#4662435)
    ...when they eventually do wear out? Eventually these batteries will have to be replaced and if they use radioactive material in their core then they could pose a very hazardous problem to the environment. Yucca is going to look like a playground compared to the problem with these batteries being disposed of when laptops are thrown out and replaced without transferring batteries for whatever reason.
    • Do you actually do any reasearch or have any knowledge to base thing you say on, or do you just talk out your ass all the time. It's people like you that are going to wreck it for the rest of us and make it so that new battery technology won't ever be availble.

      The worst part is you're not even harmless. The lack of progress in the battery field due to people being afraid of flamable liquid, and anything that contains the word 'nuclear' or 'radiation' means we're going to keep dumping cadmium and mercury into landfills. It's kneejerk comments like yours based on false information that cause these new technologies to be dismissed without consideration.

      For the sake of the rest of us, if you don't know what you're talking about, don't talk.
    • Actually, no. Did you read the article?

      1. Uses beta particles. Non dangerous[1]
      2. Think abou it: All energy used (battery dead) means NO radation remaining. It'd be no worse, than say, lead.

      [1] Okay, iif you breath in a lot it my casue problems, but it's not going to make your kids have green skin.
      • No, when the battery doesn't have enough radiation output to still function as a battery it will still have remaining undecayed isotopes. Exactly how much depends on what fraction of the original radiation output is required to produce enough energy. It should therefore be treated as hazardous material and disposed of in an appropriate way.
        • Which contain nasty, highly toxic chemicals which don't have half-lives, such as cadimum and lead?

          I think its okay to dispose of them like those others. Probably safer to drop them in the trash than regular nicads..

    • Are you a moron or something? If they've worn out, they are by definition no longer radioactive. Since they only way they run out is if they decay completely and energy can no longer be derived from them. So, who cares what we do with them? They'll be safer than current batteries in landfills.

  • by dmuth ( 14143 ) <doug.muth+slashdotNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:02PM (#4662436) Homepage Journal
    Well, so much for me having kids!

    Oh, wait... that means I'd actually have to get NEAR a real-life female first...
    • Considering how warm laptops can get on the bottom these days you have more to fear from that. Sperm is very sensitive to temperature changes and heat is a prime enemy of them (which is why the testicles are outside the body instead of inside)
  • Would you feel comfortable with a radioactive power source inside your laptop or cellphone?

    Heck, no. I simply wouldn't feel safe knowing that there were hazardous materials [epa.gov] inside my computer...

    (runs and hides from the Radioactive Boogeyman)

  • by tiedyejeremy ( 559815 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:03PM (#4662440) Homepage Journal
    Just what we need - to be the subjects of another beta test!

    All kidding aside, I see major problems convincing portable electronics users that they'll be safe with ooooohhhhh.... "Radioactive" devices in their cars.

    It's sad, because no one seems at all concerned with the energy already put off by cell phones and the batteries could be an awesome step torward better power management.

    I wonder what the disposal concerns and criteria are?

    • Here is a stunning prediction. Somebody will come up with a good name for the technology and everybody will want to use it.

      Just for grins, count the number of "death rays" you have around you right now. Perhaps you know them as "lasers". Remember to check you local CD and DVD players.

  • by YrWrstNtmr ( 564987 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:04PM (#4662442)
    "The amount of radioactivity is so miniscule that you don't have to worry about it as much."

    If I may ask a simple question here: As much as what ?
    • Re:Nuke batteries (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Raiford ( 599622 )
      Well you have got a little bit of Americium in your house or place of work right now. Every smoke detector has some of the radioisotope in it. I would not be too worried about my laptop or cell phone containing the stuff. I would be more concerned about how all of the nuke powered electronics would be disposed of when they become obsolete. I guess the power sources could be recycled.

  • Beta particles... (Score:5, Informative)

    by crc32 ( 133399 ) <colin@PARISursa.ath.cx minus city> on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:04PM (#4662445) Homepage
    These things are so weak that even a sheet of paper will block them. These things will probably be encased in metal and plastic. Everyone who is concerned about radation near their bodies should be more worried about the antennas than the isotopes. If these things can be shown to be safer than Lead, or Nickel-Cadmium (both extremely toxic, even in miniscule amounts), then these may be the next wave of power generation...
  • I fear... (Score:5, Funny)

    by jhines0042 ( 184217 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:05PM (#4662454) Journal
    ...that this will not fly unless Beta Radiation hires a serious PR firm to spin its image into a happy, fun loving, club hopping, racially indeterminate, good looking female that everyone would want to have in their lap.
  • Radiation (Score:5, Informative)

    by starsong ( 624646 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:05PM (#4662455)

    The radiation mentioned in the article is just the emission of beta particles -- in other words, ordinary electrons. At the energy levels associated with atomic decays they would be stopped by a thick piece of paper, to say nothing of human skin.

    So this actually sounds like quite a novel and safe approach. It's not like they're shoving a few pounds of plutonium into the thing and trying to get energy from the heat -- like NASA does on space probes.

  • by nystul555 ( 579614 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:06PM (#4662469) Homepage
    Here's more info, straight from Cornell.

    http://www.news.cornell.edu/Chronicle/02/11.7.02 /t iny_battery.html

    http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Oct02/canti le ver.ws.html

    It seems to me that this should be safe. They note in the article that they are only creating batteries which use Beta radiation, which is too weak to hurt you. If that is true, then yeah, I would use them, if it meant my laptop or cellphone would last for 10 or 20 years.
    • ... if it meant my laptop or cellphone would last for 10 or 20 years.

      Soooo..... You'd be willing to have the same laptop or cell phone for 20 years? Talk about being behind the technology curve!

  • alpha, beta, gamma (Score:5, Informative)

    by tbmaddux ( 145207 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:06PM (#4662475) Homepage Journal
    Something wrong here. From the original article:
    Lal said that he chose only isotopes that emit beta particles because their energy is small enough not to penetrate skin. Radioactive material can emit beta particles, alpha particles or gamma rays--the last two of which are carry enough energy to be hazardous, said Lal.
    Alpha particles [epa.gov] are helium nuclei, and cannot penetrate the skin. Alpha emmitters aren't much concern unless ingested or inhaled. Beta particles [epa.gov] are electrons, they can penetrate the skin and/or burn it. So either it's really an alpha emitter and harmless, or it's a beta emitter and of concern.
    • by DirtyJ ( 576100 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:41PM (#4662872)
      Yep - somethin's screwy in the article. Not surprising, though - the press frequently garbles science/technology stories to the point of being flat-out wrong on small, but significant points.

      As was pointed out above, beta particles (electrons) can be easily stopped with thin sheets of metal which introduce large electrical interaction cross-sections. Alpha particles are too large to penetrate the skin to a significant depth and are only dangerous if ingested.

      When I was a physics TA in college, we worked with radioactive pellets for some labs, and I was told that I actually had to tell the students that they 'should not eat the radiation sources'. I'm sure several of them would have tried if I hadn't warned them...

    • by CharlieO ( 572028 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @05:14PM (#4663213)
      OK - How Atomic Batteries Work and Medical Physics 101 :)

      Medical Physics

      The damage done to human tissue is a function (~linear) of the amount of energy deposited by the radiation into the tissue.

      This is a function itself of:

      1) The amount of energy depositied by the radiation per unit of path length.
      2) The length of the path in the body.

      Also of interest in practical situations is this also applies to shielding i.e. if the shielding is such that the energy is enirely deposited in the shield materiel then the radition is fully shielded. If not then you have attenuated the radiation.

      On one hand massive particles like Alpha Particles are 'safer' because they deposit energy quickly (they interact fairly strongly with matter), so can be stopped by very small masses like paper/foil/skin epidermis. On the other hand high energy Alpha Particles can be very dangerous if not shielded because they can carry a lot of energy into the body due to thier mass, and deposit it there as the tissue stops the particle.

      At the other extreme Gamma Radiation is 'bad' because it doesn't lose energy very easily (becasue they don't interact as strongly with matter) so they cannot easily be shielded, but will at least not deposit the whole of the energy in the tissue but pass through it. Unfortunatley of course gamma radiation is highly energetic so it can still deposit a lot of energy.

      So the risk of medical damage from a radioactive source is function of
      1) The strength of the emmission
      2) The type of emmission
      3) The amount of shielding between the source and you

      It is not just the radition type.

      As already stated the biggest risk is when radioactive substances are ingested such that they stay in the body for some time, as this increase the energy depositied into the tissue - alpha emission is particularly bad here because it will deposit the whole of the energy into the surrounding tissue.

      In this instance you may well find that a low energy beta source is a better choice, because with a low energy alpha source the raditation may not even make it out of the source's casing.

      Atomic Batteries

      For the interested 'atomic' batteries generaly work by using a radioactive source to heat a shield material around it. This heat can then be turned into electricity by putting a thermocouple matrix in the shield material, with the hot junction in the material, and the cold junction outside.

      Now in this case we need a lot of energy in the shield material, but enough to get out of the sources casing, so low energy beta is good here.

      It is safe, because the whole point of the design is that the radiation is shielded, thats how you recover the energy into electricty. You will get very very little external radiation from a well designed atomic battery.

      This is not new technology, deep space probes have been using them for years because solar cells would be useless in the outer solar system

      The characteristics of this sort of power generation is that it is physically small, long lasting but low current. This is ideal for portable devices, but not usable really for transport or power devices.

      Practically you would probably need another battery like LiIon such that the LiIon cell is trickle charged all the time, but can supply surges of power.

      This would be great in a cellphone where the LiIon battery would supply the high power needed for transmiting during the calls, and the atomic battery would supply enough to charge the LiIon and do standby - phone not got enough charge, just leave it for an hour. Conceptually you may never need to charge the phone, or change the battery, it could be fitted for life in the phone.

      The challenge is finding the right materials and making it mass producable. On space probes its easy because you can cool the cold junction in the vacuum of space and make it efficient, plus you don't really care about the cost or making 1000's of them a week.
      • "On space probes its easy because you can cool the cold junction in the vacuum of space and make it efficient"
        I thought that since space was a near vacuum it was very difficult to cool things, as the cooling process needs to transfer the heat energy to something else. A vacuum is a near perfect insulator.
      • It is possible to convert the radioactive decay directly into electric energy without going through heat. Alpha and Beta particles are charged and they are released at relativistic speeds. This create a magnetic field that can be harnessed.

        See U.S patent 4,835,433 "Apparatus for direct conversion of radioactive decay energy to electrical energy".

        This technology has been demonstrated to be an order of magnitude more efficient that RTGs.

    • True, as far as it goes. Alpha particles outside the body are indeed quite harmless--they cannot penetrate the dead skin cells of the epidermis, they don't even travel very far through air. If ingested, alpha emitters are often quite a bit more dangerous than other radioisotopes, because alpha particles deposit all of their energy over a short path. If these short paths intersect cell nuclei, this process can lead to mutation and ultimately cancer.

      Betas come in a range of flavours. They are indeed electrons, ejected at high speed from radioactive nuclei. The amount of kinetic energy that they carry depends on the radioactive species under consideration. Phosporous-32 is quite potentially dangerous, it emits betas with an energy of about 690 keV (IIRC). These will penetrate skin quite easily. I mention P-32 because it is frequently used in molecular biology. In the lab, compounds containing P-32 must be stored encased in plexiglass (thickness varies with concentration and quantity of isotope), and shielding employed by researchers.

      The batteries that they're working on at Caltech are based around Nickel-63. Ni-63 has a beta decay energy of up to 17 keV. That's pretty pathetic, and it won't penetrate skin. It's actually annoying for researchers for a different reason: you can't detect it with a Geiger counter because the weak betas won't penetrate the window at the end of the Geiger tube. If you spill a compound containing Ni-63, it's harder to find all of it when you clean up. (P-32, on the other hand, gives quite a nice signal.)

      So: Alphas are harmless outside the body, and bad if ingested. Betas may or may not be harmless outside the body (Ni-63 is, P-32 isn't) and are bad if ingested--though not as bad as alpha emitters. The section of the article to which you allude was badly written, but it wasn't as far wrong as it could have been.

  • Hmmm...this sounds like radioactive batteries, except that I think radioactive batteries aren't mechanical. I personally wouldn't mind this at all, if the radiation that leaks from it isn't too high, that is. My only concern is that they migh be insanely heavy (both the source of the radiation and the radiation shield), which would render them useless for portable devices. Haven't read the article though, just looked at it for a few seconds.
  • is that we are just one step closer to getting one of those cool laser guns that never runs out of fire power :)
  • by pclminion ( 145572 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:11PM (#4662525)
    Did any of you actually read the article? They've chosen particular isotopes which emit only beta radiation, because beta radiation cannot penetrate the skin (well, ok, high-energy betas can, but I assume they've chosen isotopes that produce low-energy betas). Beta radiation is composed of fast electrons -- that's it!

    I would definitely be cautious using a battery like this, but I wouldn't be automatically opposed to trying it. Besides, if lots of radiation was leaking out of this thing, then that would be a pretty inefficient battery, wouldn't it?

  • And you thought all that Mountain Dew you were drinking made you sterile...
  • by dbarclay10 ( 70443 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:18PM (#4662612)
    I'm not a nuclear engineer, but I *have* spent many hours studying CANDU nuclear reactors.

    So, the answer to the question in the post? Yes, I would(!!) feel comfortable walking around with what these guys are talking about in my pocket.

    The fact is, you get more radiation from a digital watch than you do living as near a CANDU reactor as you're allowed to live (about a kilometer). These people don't screw around. In the current global climate of anti-nuclear-anything, they'd be idiots to even contemplate cutting a corner. And, hell, most of these people are good people - the sorrow they'd feel at anybody having died because of their designs would be real, and it would be deep. As far as the companies are concerned, you can't have a plant meltdown and then just rebuild it. Chances are, you have to build an entirely new facility somewhere else, since the original area is waaay too contaminated.

    I fully expect that the people working on these batteries have the same mind set - they just don't dick around. (And from the papers I've read, that does seem to be the case.)
    • Unfortunatly, there are idiots [bbc.co.uk] around who do [buffalo.edu] cut corners. It's essential that whenever a dangerous substance is handled, it's almost impossible for it to be mishandled. Not just idiot proof, because idiots are so ingeious. This of course applies regardless if the dangerous substance is nuclear, or "just" chemically dangerous.
  • by Jack_Frost ( 28997 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:19PM (#4662618)
    Of the three types of decay radiation alpha particles are the safest, then beta, and finally gamma. Alpha particles are bare helium nuclei while a beta particle is basically a free electron. Alpha cannot penetrate the skin, and will only travel about 1 inch in air before it snags a couple electrons and turns into regular helium. Beta particles are much lighter and tend to have higher energies. They can penetrate skin but will be shielded by thin layers of metal or plastic. Though in a battery casing this wouldn't matter much.
  • by technoCon ( 18339 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:20PM (#4662631) Homepage Journal
    one problem with advanced technology is that it is often indistinguishable from magic as every SF reader knows. The downside is how people respond to magic with awe and fear.

    ugh, radiation bad, me no like radiation. it heap bad juju; it give Grog cancer.

    Meanwhile, Grog likes woodstove and fireplace. Note that the pleasure of such heat sources is infrared radiation. There is a lot of difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.

    the article says these devices would use BETA radiation. Whazzat? fast electrons. If they won't penetrate skin, they won't cause mutations, they won't give Grog cancer.

    Slashdotters SHOULD know better. If we're half as smart as we think ourselves, then we ought to be able to distinguish between beta radiation, infrared radiation, etc. and also the safe energy levels of each type of radiation

    Folks, we have a leadership role here. If we know the techie background to say whether something is safe or not, we ought to apply it to this kind of stuff.
    • by Idarubicin ( 579475 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @05:50PM (#4663576) Journal
      Slashdotters SHOULD know better. If we're half as smart as we think ourselves, then we ought to be able to distinguish between beta radiation, infrared radiation, etc. and also the safe energy levels of each type of radiation

      You're right; we ought to know the basics about different types of radiation--it should be part of every science curriculum. As for knowing safe levels, well...that's a little different.

      Deciding whether or not the beta emitter in the battery is actually 'safe' or not requires a little bit of background knowledge. High energy beta emitters like P-32 are actually potentially dangerous. P-32 betas will go quite a distance in air, and even to a significant depth in skin. P-32 in a thin lead lining is even more dangerous, because betas slowed down by lead emit x-rays and gammas.

      On the other hand, the source for these batteries (not mentioned in the original article) is Ni-63. Its maximum beta decay energy is about 3% that of P-32, and its betas will be stopped by a sheet of paper or the dead layer of skin. But who here has decay energies memorized? I know I had to look up Ni-63.

      So: not all betas are harmless, because not all betas are created equal. Actually, linear accelerators are used to generate high energy betas (up to about 20 MeV) for use in clinical radiation therapy (for cancer treatment). Those little guys can still deliver an appreciable dose down to about ten centimetres in to a tissue volume.

      So--you're right. We do have a responsibility to inform the public when we know what we're talking about. I don't think I'd feel very confident discussing safe levels of microwave or infrared exposure. Or UV, for that matter. I know quite a bit more about X-rays and gammas, since I've worked with medical physicists.

      Knowledge like booze. Know your limits. Yeah, I know. It's a crappy analogy. Sue me. (But IANAL.)

  • Nuclear waste (Score:3, Insightful)

    by InodoroPereyra ( 514794 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:27PM (#4662730)
    So, how exactly would you get rid of the battery after use ?. Moreover, even if there is a proper way to dispose them, how can you make sure that people will be responsible enough not just trash them in a regular trash can ?. It sounds horribly risky !
  • by dfn5 ( 524972 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:28PM (#4662742) Journal
    Would you feel comfortable with a radioactive power source inside your laptop or cellphone?

    I've got 6 monitors in my cube. What is a little radiation in my laptop? I'm probably already sterile. Woo Hoo!!!!!

  • by gosand ( 234100 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:29PM (#4662752)
    From the article:

    Some researchers are also working on more efficient solar cells and methane-powered fuel cells.

    Methane powered?

    I can see the conversations now:
    "Hang on, my cellphone battery is getting low, I have to go through the Taco Bell drive-through."

  • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:34PM (#4662803) Homepage Journal
    Meanwhile, a team from Cornell University last month unveiled a device that converts the energy stored in radioactive material directly into mechanical motion, which in turn moves the parts of a miniscule machine to generate electricity.
    Could this scale up? Could we make large-scale power generators that run on the energy from all the low-level radioactive waste we have lying around? People might not complain so much about plans like Yucca Mountain if the dump was acting as a free power plant ...
  • Bah (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Reality Master 101 ( 179095 ) <`RealityMaster101' `at' `gmail.com'> on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @04:34PM (#4662804) Homepage Journal

    Small nuclear power plants? We had those back in the 1970s [scifi.com].

    (best -- show -- ever, except for when they "jumped the aliens")

  • Nice headline (Score:3, Insightful)

    by digidave ( 259925 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @05:00PM (#4663070)
    quote: Run Your Laptop On Nuclear Energy

    Does this include when I plug it into my wall outlet, the electricity from which is generated by a nuclear station?

    Perhaps something along the lines of "Portable Nuclear Generator for your Laptop" would have been more appropriate. The next article could be "Portable Birth Control for Men", with the same link.

  • by AB3A ( 192265 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @05:02PM (#4663098) Homepage Journal
    Obligatory joke: "My BRAIN? Why, that's my second favorite organ!"

    People are scared of what RF radiation could do to them. That's RF, as in Radio Frequency. Telling them that it's non-ionizing is pointless. They only understand "radiation" and they don't want to understand any more.

    Now someone is proposing a nuclear battery. I wish them luck. With so many people believing that putting a cell phone next to their heads is dangerous today, wait until interest groups discover that the battery they're using is a nuclear device.

    Once again, we have what is probably a technically elegant solution being offered to a seriously ignorant public. Expect the risks to be blown entirely out of proportion while "harmless" chemical batteries are added by the ton to landfills every day. Thank-you Jeremy Rifkin. Thank-you Paul Brodur. Thank-you Nancy Wertheimer. Thank-you Rachel Carson. You and your successors have taught a generation of idiots all about fear-mongering. Now we can all pay for the wages of stupidity and political grandstanding.

    Meanwhile, because of our societal phobias we'll continue making a mess of our environment.

    (Rifkin: Fearmonger on Genetically modified foods. Brodur: wrote the "Zapping of America", a treatise on RF phobias and science by innunendo. Nancy Werthiemer: Co-author of a seriously flawed paper on powerline exposure and lukemia. Rachael Carson: "Silent Spring"; although her cause was reasonable, her facts were not.)

  • by mysidia ( 191772 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @05:06PM (#4663134)

    The word Nuclear seems to have become a misnomer for anything at all involving atoms. The article you have linked to is not talking about nuclear power at all: power harvested from the nucleus is a distinct thing.

    What they are doing is not making a battery out of a nuclear reactor or nuclear power source -- no fission or fusion is being used, therefore, they are not harvesting the power derived from splitting or merging nucleii, so the term nuclear would seem incorrect.

    They are simply using some substance that has a certain radioactivity: it has the tendency to decay and release some energy, but other than that, is relatively harmless unless you ingest it or something (You would at least get very sick if you opened and ingested the contents of any battery, however!).

    Read from the article:

    Lal said that he chose only isotopes that emit beta particles because their energy is small enough not to penetrate skin. Radioactive material can emit beta particles, alpha particles or gamma rays--the last two of which are carry enough energy to be hazardous, said Lal.

    You won't be glowing or sterilized if you put one of these in your lap, the danger is about as great as using an ordinary battery -- it could pop a leak and fill your lap with mercury, hydrochloric acid, or something, which would be just as bad.

    Moreover, if simple radioactive decay is called nuclear because it deals with atoms, then it could perhaps be argued, that all batteries (and indeed, all power sources) are nuclear, because all electrical power sources eventually depend on generating electricity: exciting electrons, and electrons effect atoms.

    It is not apparent that there is any danger with this battery that is new, that is, you can't tell by the fact that a battery uses this particular method of power generation that it would be more dangerous than any other kind of battery.

  • by Hyped01 ( 541957 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @05:06PM (#4663139) Homepage
    Anyone have any idea how long radioactive isotopes have been used in smoke detectors and similar in home devices? Much less how much radiation still leaks from "low emmision" TV's and monitors - or projection TVs?

    Check it out, then tell me if this is a big deal. (it's not.)


  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @05:07PM (#4663155)
    Look, the point of the article is that these are very small devices. The radiation source is only emitting ß particles, which is an electron (or positron)! They can't even pass through your skin. Not only that, but if these new batts are as small as the article implies, then you could waste a half-ounce and put a lead shield around the thing to prevent any leakage at all! And if the particle won't go through skin, think what a (very thin) lead sheet would do?

    It's not that bad. Now if you actually had a fission plant going on, then you'd want to be concerned.
  • by Maskirovka ( 255712 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @05:25PM (#4663318)
    The headline should read: Run laptop and get colon cancer.
  • by Jubedgy ( 319420 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @05:40PM (#4663458)
    "...chose only isotopes that emit beta particles because their energy is small enough not to penetrate skin. Radioactive material can emit beta particles, alpha particles or gamma rays--the last two of which are carry enough energy to be hazardous..."

    Really gamma rays (ie photons) are the only form of radiation we'd have to worry about. They have such low specific ionization (# of ions created (due to photointeractions in this case) per cm trraveled that they can go right through your body...ionizing stuff which shouldn't be and making you sick (or worse).

    The other two, beta (electrons or positrons) and alpha particles (essentially helium-4 w/o the electrons) have such high specific ionizations (due to their charges) that they will not penetrate past your skin. In fact, alpha particles won't even penetrate your DEAD skin! IMHO, I consider alpha particles are much safer (unless you swallow the emitter ) in that you could hold those 'batteries' in your bare hand and not have live skin be touched whereas the beta particles WOULD reach live skin.

    In any case, all of this is just probability so 'safe' is a relative term. Economically, many more nuclides beta decay (specifically beta minus decay) than anything else so that is probably the real reason: easier and cheaper to get enouogh of the right nuclide...but I applaud the efforts at trying to show the general public that at least one type of radiation isn't so bad.

    You can bet as soon as these decay-powered batteries are available I'll be the first in line to get one =)

  • Comfy! (Score:3, Funny)

    by Dirtside ( 91468 ) on Wednesday November 13, 2002 @06:46PM (#4664073) Journal
    Would you feel comfortable with a radioactive power source inside your laptop or cellphone?
    Comfortable? Sure. I'd feel all warm and, after absorbing suitable amounts of radiation, fuzzy.

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