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University of Missouri

Building a Better Battery

Nuclear batteries offer promise for providing reliable, long-lasting power.

man holding up tiny battery

Jae Wan Kwon and his nuclear battery. Photo by Rob Hill.

Batteries keep getting smaller, lighter and cheaper while lasting longer and providing ever more power. But Jae Wan Kwon believes he can do even better. The associate professor of electrical and computer engineering uses nuclear materials to develop batteries for anything from flashlights to pacemakers to missiles.

Engineers have struggled to transform nuclear material’s considerable energy into electricity to power, say, a semiconductor. Then Kwon tried putting isotopes into the semiconductor material so that radiation strikes the semiconductor from all directions. Kwon’s new battery is much more powerful than earlier models. His first penny-sized battery generated 17 nanowatts; the second iteration generated 76 nanowatts, and results are far better now. Despite improvements, it’s still not enough to fire up an iPod because this development work uses a weak radioisotope.

Next, Kwon will use a different nuclear material — he can’t say which one for proprietary reasons — that may increase power by orders of magnitude.