Technology has been developed for a class of self-contained, long-duration power sources called beta batteries, which harvest the energy contained in the radioactive emissions from beta decay isotopes. The new battery is a significant improvement over the conventional phosphor/ solar cell concept for converting this energy in three ways. First, the thin phosphor is replaced with a thick scintillator that is transparent to its own emissions. By using a scintillator sufficiently thick to completely stop all the beta particles, efficiency is greatly improved. Second, since the energy of the beta particles is absorbed in the scintillator, the semiconductor photodetector is shielded from radiation damage that presently limits the performance and lifetime of traditional phosphor converters. Finally, instead of a thin film of beta-emitting material, the isotopes are incorporated into the entire volume of the thick scintillator crystal allowing more activity to be included in the converter without self-absorption.

The Scintillator-Based Beta Battery: Isotope containing scintillator and surrounding scintillator captures virtually all of the energy emitted by the beta emitter.
There is no chemical difference between radioactive and stable strontium beta emitters such as Sr-90, so the beta emitter can be uniformly distributed throughout a strontium based scintillator crystal. When beta emitter material is applied as a foil or thin film to the surface of a solar cell or even to the surface of a scintillator, much of the radiation escapes due to the geometry, and some is absorbed within the layer itself, leading to inefficient harvesting of the energy. In contrast, if the emitting atoms are incorporated within the scintillator, the geometry allows for the capture and efficient conversion of the energy of particles emitted in any direction. Any gamma rays associated with secondary decays or Bremsstrahlung photons may also be absorbed within the scintillator, and converted to lower energy photons, which will in turn be captured by the photocell or photodiode.

Some energy will be lost in this two-stage conversion process (high-energy particle to low-energy photons to electric current). The geometric advantage partially offsets this as well, since the absorption depth of high-energy beta radiation is much larger than the depth of a p-n junction. Thus, in a p-n junction device, much of the radiation is absorbed far away from the junction, and the electron-hole pairs are not all effectively collected. In contrast, with a transparent scintillator the radiation can be converted to light in a larger volume, and all of the light can be collected in the active region of the photodiode.

Finally, the new device is more practical because it can be used at much higher power levels without unduly shortening its lifetime. While the crystal structure of scintillators is also subject to radiation damage, their performance is far more tolerant of defects than that of semiconductor junctions. This allows the scintillator-based approach to use both higher energy isotopes and larger quantities of the isotopes. It is projected that this technology has the potential to produce a radioisotope battery with up to twice the efficiency of presently used systems.

This work was done by Noa M. Rensing, Michael R. Squillante, Timothy C. Tiernan, William Higgins, and Urmila Shirwadkar of Radiation Monitoring Devices, Inc. for Glenn Research Center.

Inquiries concerning rights for the commercial use of this invention should be addressed to NASA Glenn Research Center, Innovative Partnerships Office, Attn: Steven Fedor, Mail Stop 4–8, 21000 Brookpark Road, Cleveland, Ohio 44135. LEW-18871-1

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the February, 2013 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

Read more articles from this issue here.

Read more articles from the archives here.