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March 27th, 2008
Materials that directly convert radiation into electricity could produce a new era of spacecraft and even Earth-based vehicles powered by high-powered nuclear batteries, say US researchers.
Electricity is usually made using nuclear power by heating steam to rotate turbines that generate electricity.
But beginning in the 1960s, the US and Soviet Union used thermoelectric materials that convert heat into electricity to power spacecraft using nuclear fission or decaying radioactive material. The Pioneer missions were among those using the latter, "nuclear battery" approach.
Dispensing with the steam and turbines makes those systems smaller and less complicated. But thermoelectric materials have very low efficiency. Now US researchers say they have developed highly efficient materials that can convert the radiation, not heat, from nuclear materials and reactions into electricity.
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