Water-based nuclear batteries could power spacecraft for 100 years

Spacecraft may be able to use technology that lasts for up to 100 years, in harsh environments and low temperatures, thanks to a new water-based nuclear battery.

The new battery using betavoltaics, a battery technology that generates electricity from radiation, has been developed in the US that could help to provide a lengthy power source for extended missions in to space.

As well as this the technology has been touted as a solution implantable medical devices, which would not need to be removed frequently due to the battery being low.

The battery created, at the University of Missouri, US, uses a radioactive isotope that boosts electrochemical energy in a water-based solution.

A nanostructured titanium dioxide electrode then collects and converts energy into electrons.

Jae W. Kwon, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and nuclear engineering, said that using water increases the possibilities of the battery.

“Water acts as a buffer and surface plasmons created in the device turned out to be very useful in increasing its efficiency.

“The ionic solution is not easily frozen at very low temperatures and could work in a wide variety of applications including car batteries and, if packaged properly, perhaps spacecraft.”

NASA who is also researching the betavoltaic technology, as well as alphavoltaic technology, said they could last up to 100 years when fully developed.

“These small devices would be capable of providing low levels of power for an extremely long period of time (i.e., >100 years) and would be capable of operating over a wide range of operational environments with little if any loss of performance, most notably at extremely low temperatures (i.e., < 100 K), but also in harsh biological environments.”


The idea of using betaoltaics has been around for some time and was even used in early pacemakers.

The university has not announced details of the power output or conversion rates of the new battery at present.

However the technology, which was available at the time, could not allow the devices to be efficient and cheaper lithium-ion batteries eventually replaced them. Now, the new advancements could be the doors are re-opened for the radiation powered devices.

Kwon said: “Betavoltaics, a battery technology that generates power from radiation, has been studied as an energy source since the 1950s.

“Controlled nuclear technologies are not inherently dangerous. We already have many commercial uses of nuclear technologies in our lives including fire detectors in bedrooms and emergency exit signs in buildings.”

A study from 1973 discussed the potential for betavoltaic energy conversion.

It said: “Interest in low-power, long-life power sources has been significantly increased in recent years, primarily because of the emergence of clearly defined applications.”

The paper from L.C. Olsen suggested that the most likely uses would be for military and biomedical uses.

Research conducted by Sara Harrison at Stanford University, in 2013, said that the nuclear batteries will have significant advantages over traditional batteries.

She wrote: “It is well established that conventional electrochemical batteries, despite their widespread use in electronic devices, have limited longevity and a strong tendency to degrade under extreme environmental conditions.”

Featured Image courtesy of NASA

Curiosity Rover reaches Martian mountain in hunt for extraterrestrial life

After months of travelling, Curiosity Rover has arrived at Mount Sharp, a Martian mountain that NASA hopes will provide evidence that microbial life once existed on the Red Planet.

The rover is now in the Murray Formation, an area littered with greenish silicon-rich rocks located at the base of the mountain which it will be taking drill samples from.

Silicon is known for its higher-than-average ability to preserve organic matter, which, if found will confirm that life once existed on Mars.

“Silicon is an element that we know based on Earth experience can be associated with preferential preservation of organic matter,” said John Grotzinger, Curiosity project scientist from California Institute of Technology, in a NASA teleconference.

The area carries significant hallmarks of once having water, a key sign in the search for life.

“We see lots of interesting features there that suggest strongly that these rocks were formed in the presence of water,” explained Grotzinger.


The Murray Formation is of particular interest because it is 200m thick and continues underneath Mount Sharp. This is a significant increase from other previously drilled Martian rock formations, which have only been 5m thick.

The increased thickness represents millions of years of rock deposits, potentially making it a rich source of information about the Red Planet’s history.

“We potentially have millions to tens of millions of years of Martian history just waiting for us to explore,” Kathryn Stack, Curiosity Rover mission scientist of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

With help from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the aim has been to identify areas that could have sustained life to help zone-in the search for organic matter.

“In our particular case what we are trying to do is discover habitable environments,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.


The Curiosity Rover mission has been wildly successful thus far, with the initial aim of proving Mars once had the conditions to sustain life already fulfilled.

“In August 2012 curiosity landed in Gale Crater and it immediately hit the jackpot,” explained Green, referring to the fact that the crater is an ancient lakebed environment.

This location was a “go-to” site, intended as an initial area for exploration before redirecting Curiosity to Mount Sharp, its primary target, which it will eventually scale.

“It’s really an honour and privileged for me to tell you all that we have finally arrived,” said Grotzinger.

The base of the mountain has provided new and promising geology, giving the team high hopes for the rest of the mission.

“This high silica content is something different for us, it’s something new,” said Grotzinger.

“We believe we are going to be talking about a science story in the next few months that involves water.”

Images courtesy of NASA.