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There are so many ideas for improving the efficiency and longevity of batteries, why shouldn't someone come up with a water-based nuclear battery that also includes ingredients used in sunscreens? And why not have it provide electricity instead of nuclear power?

Strange as it sounds, someone has done just that. Scientists at the University of Missouri (MU) have created a battery that can be used to supply electrical energy to automobiles and possibly more esoteric applications such as space flight.

The technology is called "betavoltaics," and it's not really new. Jae W. Kwon, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and nuclear engineering at the university's college of engineering, says the idea has been studied since the 1950s, the dawn of the Space Race.

And nuclear or not, Kwon says, it's safe, even though it uses strontium-90, a radioactive isotope and the most dangerous component of fallout from a nuclear explosion.

"Controlled nuclear technologies are not inherently dangerous," Kwon told the University of Missouri News Bureau. "We already have many commercial uses of nuclear technologies in our lives, including fire detectors in bedrooms and emergency exit signs in buildings."

The battery uses strontium-90 to increase the electrochemical energy in a water-based solution. And it includes a microscopic, or "nanostructured," electrode made with titanium dioxide, which normally is found in ultraviolet light blockers such as those used in sunscreens. This electrode, which includes a platinum coating, gathers the electrochemical energy and converts it into electrons.

And the water? It "acts as a buffer" to protect the battery's contents, Kwon explains. Meanwhile, he says, "surface plasmons" – the collective oscillation of the electrons – are created in the device, and they help improve the device's efficiency.

Although the battery contains water, it's also buzzing with ions – electrically charged atoms – which make the water very difficult to freeze, even at extremely low temperatures. As a result, Kwon says, the battery is so versatile that it could replace a conventional automotive battery.

In fact, Kwon says, the battery could even be used to provide electricity to spacecraft, as long as it's packaged properly. But he cautions that these batteries will require extensive testing before they're used to power any electrical equipment.

And Kwon concedes that there's no guarantee that a proper casing for the batteries can be found to adapt them to the rigors of space flight.

Kwon and his team at MU have published their findings in an article titled "Plasmon-assisted Radiolytic Energy Conversion in Aqueous Solutions" in the current issue of Nature.

 

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