Nuclear mini batteries are small, maintenance-free and durable. Russian researchers have found a way to significantly extend the life of pacemakers without dangerous gamma radiation.

According to their own statements, Russian researchers have made important technical progress towards the development of medical- grade nuclear batteries . They succeeded  in enriching the  radioactive isotope nickel-63 as a possible energy source in a gas centrifuge to more than 69 percent. The state-owned Russian fuel cell manufacturer TVEL  recently announced this in Moscow. The degree of enrichment depends on the life of the battery. By 2019, an enrichment of more than 80 percent should be achieved at the research facility in Selenogorsk in Siberia. According to TVEL, compact nuclear batteries with a lifespan of up to 50 years are currently the trend in instrument making and radio electronics.

Nuclear-powered microbatteries are used not only in space, military or industrial plants, but also “pacemakers and other biostimulators”, according to TVEL. Because so far, the batteries of a pacemaker hold only about five to ten years.

Safe radiation 

Electricity is not produced in nuclear mini-batteries as they are in the nuclear power plant due to the energy evolution of nuclear fission, but from the natural decay of artificial radioisotopes such as nickel-63 or tritium. The artificially produced isotope Ni-63 has a half-life of 100 years. It breaks down into a “gentle beta radiation without harmful gamma radiation,” said TVEL. This makes it suitable for use in medicine. According to the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS), “such a simple plastic packaging is enough to shield these rays”. 

The Swede Arne Larson received the first implanted pacemaker in 1958
The Swede Arne Larson received the first implanted pacemaker in 1958

The idea of ​​nuclear-powered pacemakers is not new. In the mid-1970s, some patients in the USA, but also in Germany, had been implanted batteries with the isotope Promethium-147, said the BfS. However, there were problems in size, durability and shielding against radiation.

The US space agency Nasa has long been using nuclear batteries – so-called RTGs (Radioiosotopic Thermoelectric Generators) – as an energy source for installations in space. Usually the very strong alpha emitter plutonium-238 is used. With such a battery drives about the Mars rover Curiosity. The Soviet Union used to equip lighthouses and other remote facilities with RTGs. 

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