NASA has recently used nuclear battery instead of solar panels in a new rover, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).
"The rover isn’t powered by a nuclear reactor but the insulated Pu-238 generates so much heat that it actually glows a dull red in the dark. This excess warmth will be put to good use, generating approximately 110 watts of electricity through thermoelectric lead tellurite –- a material that creates electricity when there is a temperature gradient. This power can keep the rover chugging along for years if needed, though MSL’s current mission is only scheduled to last 23 months."
Last February 23, 2011, Eben Harrell wrote an article at Ecocentric with the title "The First Nuclear Battery?" He wrote:"My story focused on the smallest of the small reactors–the 25 megawatt Hyperion Power Module (a.k.a the nuclear battery) which Denver-based Hyperion Power hopes will soon fuel subdivisions, mining operations, military bases, hospitals, desalination plants and even cruise liners around the world soon."
He was referring to his article in Time Magazine where he pointed out the following: "Designed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory spin-off Hyperion Power Generation Inc., the nuclear battery — so called because it is cheap, small and easily transportable — is about the size of a refrigerator, compared with a 50-ft.-tall traditional reactor. It produces 25 megawatts of electricity — approximately a fortieth the output of a large atomic power-plant reactor. While not quite compact enough for cars, the battery, known as the Hyperion Power Module, has been designed to power subdivisions or towns with fewer than 20,000 homes, as well as military bases, mining operations, desalination plants and even commercial ships, including cruise liners."
"Nuclear batteries run off of the continuous radioactive decay of certain elements. These incredibly long-lasting batteries are still in the theoretical and developmental stage of existence, but they promise to provide clean, safe, almost endless energy. They have been designed for personal use as well as for civil engineering, aeronautics, and medical treatments.
The almost magical production of electricity in nuclear batteries is made possible by the process of betavoltaics. Through this technology, the electrons that radioactive isotopes regularly lose due to decay can be harnessed and directed into a stream of electricity. A semiconductor, possibly made from silicon, catches the flying electrons and directs them into a steady power source. Even a small amount of radioactive material will provide a charge for a very long time before it expires."
"Nuclear submarines use nuclear reactors, steam turbines and reduction gearing to drive the main propeller shaft, which provides the forward and reverse thrust in the water (an electric motor drives the same shaft when docking or in an emergency).
Submarines also need electric power to operate the equipment on board. To supply this power, submarines are equipped with diesel engines that burn fuel and/or nuclear reactors that use nuclear fission. Submarines also have batteries to supply electrical power. Electrical equipment is often run off the batteries and power from the diesel engine or nuclear reactor is used to charge the batteries. In cases of emergency, the batteries may be the only source of electrical power to run the submarine."
"The Hyperion Power Module is a 70 MWt/25 MWe lead-bismuth cooled reactor concept using 20% enriched uranium nitride fuel. The reactor was originally conceived as a potassium-cooled self-regulating 'nuclear battery' fuelled by uranium hydride. However, in 2009, Hyperion Power changed the design to uranium nitride fuel and lead-bismuth cooling to expedite design certification. This now classes it as a fast neutron reactor, without moderation. Hyperion claims that the ceramic nitride fuel has superior thermal and neutronic properties compared with uranium oxide. It would be installed below ground level.
The reactor vessel housing the core and primary heat transfer circuit is about 1.5 metres wide and 2.5 metres high. It is easily portable, sealed and has no moving parts. A secondary cooling circuit transfers heat to an external steam generator. The reactor module is designed to operate for electricity or process heat (or cogeneration) continuously for up to 10 years without refuelling. Another reactor module could then take its place in the overall plant. The old module, with fuel burned down to about 15% enrichment, would be put in dry storage at site to cool for up to two years before being returned to the factory.
In March 2010, Hyperion notified the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it planned to submit a design certification application in 2012. The company says it has many expressions of interest for ordering units. In September 2010, the company signed an agreement with Savannah River Nuclear Solutions to possibly build a demonstration unit at the Department of Energy site there. (Over 1953-1991, this was where a number of production reactors for weapons plutonium and tritium were built and run.) Hyperion has said it plans to build a prototype by 2015, possibly with uranium oxide fuel if the nitride is not then available."