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Spotlight on long-life battery dilemma

16 Jul 2015  | Bill Schweber

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This approach powers the Voyager 1 and 2 craft launched in 1977, which are still traveling and sending back data even as they have crossed the vague border of our solar system into exospace. There's some also work being done to use thermocouples to capture waste heat from engines, but how practical they will be (cost, reliability, size, efficiency) is still unclear.

Of course, you can theoretically make a decay-based battery last as long as needed by using more of the core material. The question is how long the rest of the assembly and electronics will last under the application's operating conditions before it deteriorates and falls apart, unrelated to the radioactive-decay mechanism itself. But, hey, if the battery doesn't meet last 100+ years, no one from today will around from today to criticise the work?

I also saw two other articles on long-life batteries, albeit on "only" a few decades. "Choosing the Right Batteries for High-Tech Batteries" from NASA Tech Briefs looked at the attributes of various chemistries, and especially the many interesting sub-varieties of the lithium-battery family. In a word: it's complicated. When you need a few decades of use, even at very low current levels or low-rate pulsed duty cycles, there are many factors which come into the analysis such as self-discharge and temperature ratings. The mA-Hr capacity becomes only one of many parameters to consider.

While the author of this article is from a leading vendor of such batteries (Tadiran) and perhaps has some bias, I'd rather hear from someone who has real units out in the field and a track record, and who has dealt with subtle manufacturing and production issues, rather than just an academic expert. The same vendor also had a piece "Power Your Wireless Sensors for 40 Years" that had some overlap with the previous piece, but added new information as well.

Are you involved in decisions for long-life battery selection? How do you assess basic capacity needed with complex operational cycles? How do you decide on the long-life chemistry and form factor that will work?

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