Tritium is a hydrogen atom with two neutrons beside the proton in the nucleus. Tritium exists in trace amounts in rain and ground water, formed when this isotope of hydrogen combines with oxygen. Tritiated water is chemically identical to ordinary water. When tritiated water enters the body, about half is excreted within 10 days, leaving no effects. Remember that humans receive about 50% of their annual radiation dose from this type of background radiation, 48% from medical procedures and 2% from consumer goods. Drinking tritiated water (HTO) effluent from a nuclear power plant for a full year gives about one-twelfth the radiation of one round-trip airplane flight from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles. Tritium has a half-life of 12.33 years and decays by emitting low-energy beta particles (electrons) and helium gas. This is all cited to prove tritium does not pose a threat to public health and safety.
In actuality, tritium is a byproduct of nuclear power-plant cycles and, further, is generally unwanted. It is usually converted to HTO and allowed to evaporate to the atmosphere. There is some commercial use for tritium (e.g., theater exit signs with that green glow), but separating and storing it is a nuisance. There are about 1.8 kilograms produced annually that are reserved for product use and sold at exorbitant prices. A few minor studies have examined organically bound tritium (OBT) to explore human health effects of retained tritium in proteins, sugars and bone structures where lower turnover rates than with HTO exist.
It turns out that the only viable source of non-military tritium is from CANDU reactors – 21 operate in Canada, four in South Korea, and one or two in India, China, Romania, Pakistan and Argentina. This tritium is used in the production of lithium and beryllium salts (hydrides) used in various fuel cycles and products. However, it is not used to the extent of its availability.
This brings us to the new tritium battery concept offered by Onyx Scientific, the same firm commercializing the HeatWorx thermal-transport and recovery technology described in an August 2012 Federal Triangle column. Since tritium is really hydrogen, it can be reacted with carbon in the same manufacturing processes used to fabricate, say, polyethylene. This plastic can then be melted and extruded into a thin tape, vapor-coated with an electric insulator and assembled into “cells” that collect electron emissions that connect to the terminals of the battery system. Since carbon has a valence of 12 and hydrogen has one with three molecules attached to each carbon atom, such a polymer can be made to contain 43% tritium.
Experience shows that these cells can continuously produce half a watt per gram. Assuming that a battery can contain one-third by weight housing and containment and two-thirds OBT, this totally inert battery can be a 13-kW power supply in a 100-pound block about 1 cubic foot in volume. Remember that this is continuous power and must always be connected to a load, and it drops to 6,500-watt output after 12 years and four months. When it comes time to replace it, the containment is just a plastic carton with OBT in cells that can be totally incinerated into HTO and CO2 with no hazardous waste. Kind of neat!
Can you imagine a small room off your factory floor that contains all the electric power your plant will ever need? Think of what a tritium battery could do for cars, for robotic aircraft or for computers. Think of how a tritium battery could electrify a third of the world population that has no electricity and no hope of getting power because of the capital cost for generation and distribution. Think of how a tritium battery could operate remote facilities without existing power supplies.
Tritium batteries hold promise of being inexpensive to mass produce. They are scalable in size – from fitting into a cellular telephone to being enormous engines for transportation or power.
This patented technology is the developing child of Richard von Hack-Prestinary and his coworkers at Onyx. If you want to discuss your applications and/or ask questions, call him at 512-605-7170. It appears that our world and the methods of how humankind has industrialized and prospered is about to change again … for the better.