What Is an Atomic Battery?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An atomic battery derives power to run a device from the breakdown of radioactive isotopes. These batteries can have an extremely long life, which makes them useful for applications where it is difficult or impossible to access components for the purpose of battery replacement. They are sometimes referred to as “nuclear batteries,” although this is a bit of a misnomer, as they do not rely on a chain reaction to generate energy. They are very stable and safe when constructed properly and made with appropriate isotopes.

Woman holding a disc
Woman holding a disc

One application for atomic batteries is used in powering spacecraft. Probes, telescopes, and other equipment all need a source of power, but may not be serviceable to replace batteries. An atomic battery can provide the energy needed to keep systems running and send signals back to base, and should last for the life of the device. Other equipment that needs to be left unattended for extended periods of time can rely on this technology, which also has potential applications for things like implanted medical devices.

These batteries can extract energy from radioactive isotopes in a number of ways. Some rely on thermal energy. As isotopes break down, they produce heat, which an atomic battery can harness to make electricity. The heat can also be useful on devices like spacecraft, which need a source of warmth to keep scientific instruments in a safe temperature range. In the deep cold of space, components would quickly freeze without heating, but expending energy on heat could cause the equipment to run out of power, so atomic batteries provide both heat and power to resolve this problem.

Other devices rely on non-thermal methods of energy generation. The most common method takes advantage of beta particle emission to create electricity. This atomic battery design is known as a betavoltaic design, and is quite safe for use around people, because beta particles cannot penetrate human skin. They are much weaker than the more dangerous gamma particles that can be a concern with some radioactive isotopes.

It is also potentially possible to convert the decay directly into kinetic energy for use to move mechanical components of a device. Experimental atomic battery projects have shown how this application could be useful for some medical devices and other equipment. The life of the battery depends on the characteristics of the isotope used to make it, but could be a decade or more. This can meet the needs of many devices, providing a stable energy supply for an extended period of time.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@miriam98 - If you can use the atomic battery to generate mechanical energy, then I think it should be possible to create atomic battery powered electric cars.

I don’t know how big the battery would have to be, but car batteries are not too big generally. This would be a breakthrough because it would eliminate the need to charge your car battery, which in my opinion has always been a hindrance to widespread adoption of electric car technology.


@MrMoody - Well the beta particle voltaic battery is supposed to be safe around people because it won’t penetrate your skin. But that doesn’t address the issue of what happens when the device is installed in the patient.

I take it that it’s just as safe, but personally I take some of these assurances with a grain of salt. As long as no one shows any ill effects doctors assume it’s safe.

The moment someone has an “accident” due to too much exposure to beta particles, then the medical community reexamines the device. So you should always proceed with caution in these matters, in my opinion.


@Charred - For the medical devices the isotope lasts at least at least several decades, but I would hope that they can last longer. Perhaps these batteries are used in pacemakers. Obviously you want to ensure that the pacemaker keeps running long before the patient’s human heart would stop beating, so a hundred years sounds about right.

I do wonder about the radiation leaks when used as medical implants. Hopefully the amount of radiation in these atomic batteries is so minimal that it won’t have harmful effects on your health. Otherwise you would be using one device to correct one health problem, only to create another health problem in the process.


The atomic battery is an excellent device. Since it relies on the decay of the isotope, however, I suppose that it would last as long as isotope lasts.

The article doesn’t mention how long this time period might be for the space probe. I think it would be safe to assume that it would be at least a hundred years, long enough to be more than serviceable for the deep space probes to continue to transmit information back to earth.

I think this is more useful than a solar powered space probe too, as such a device might get far out where it can’t receive the sun’s direct rays anymore. The atomic battery will keep working in the light and in the darkness of space as well.

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