The public has always had a love-hate relationship with the very idea of nuclear energy, as can be observed by its consistent role in apocalyptic scenarios in pop culture, video
Recently, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, have improved on NASA’s nuclear battery design for powering satellites by making them more efficient and longer lasting. Given that the goal of space exploration is to go deeper and deeper into space, these batteries will allow them to go further – without using as much radioactive plutonium.
As the Jet Propulsions Laboratory’s supervisor for thermal
energy conversion research,
pointed out, since light falls off as distance-squared, the further out you go, the much less effective solar panels become, and alternative
sources of energy become a necessity.
Additionally, the newer probes would be less expensive for two primary reasons:
• They require less radioactive fuel – plutonium is about $8 million per kilogram!
• They contribute to the payload less, which means less propulsion fuel is needed for liftoff
The first thermoelectric generators used by NASA were placed inside the Voyager
launched back in the late 70s; they are still steadily using the heat from decaying plutonium to power parts of the electrical grid inside
the probe, and have been doing so for billions of miles to date. Other spaceships launched since then also use this mechanism –
including the New Horizons craft headed to Pluto, and the Mars Rover.
The more efficient systems – courtesy of the recent enhancements – are being used in NASA’s planned
All of this tech hinges on the physical characteristics of thermocouples,
which are the components that use the difference in temperature between two substances to produce an electrical current. The greater
efficiency of the new stuff that the Jet Propulsion Lab and NASA are working with comes from materials that conduct like metal but insulate
like glass – skutterudites.
The previous materials were entirely metallic (tellurides), and conducted both electricity and heat – the latter explains the loss in efficiency. The skutterudites, on the other hand, are capable of producing a current without experiencing as many temperature variations, leading to more energy output from less energy input.
The ubiquity of this new technology is making itself known in areas beyond powering the electrical grids of
space probes. Here on Earth, skutterudite components can also be used in the steel-making industry, and for optimizing gas turbines in
vehicles and plants. In fact, a technology start-up venture, Evident
is using them to more efficiently eliminate heat waste from industrial processes, and turning it into usable energy.
Evident Thermoelectrics – a currently private company out of Troy, NY – envisions these new, more efficient thermocouples as eventually finding use in smart technology that uses body heat, and devices that convert exhaust heat to help power hybrid car batteries. The future is, indeed, brighter at less cost.
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