A nano nuclear powered radio transmitter lasts 12 years and is small enough to be carried by an insect.

Electrical engineering associate professor Amit Lal and graduate student Steven Tin presented a prototype microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) transmitter powered by a radioactive source with a half-life of 12 years, meaning that it could operate autonomously for decades.

The researchers think the new RFID transmitter, which produces a 5-milliwatt, 10-microsecond-long, 100-megahertz radio-frequency pulse, could lead to the widespread use of radioisotope power sources.

To retain memory state in a typical low power wireless sensor node, you need between 1 and 10 nanowatts. For periodic sensing and processing, the requirement jumps to between 0.1 and 1 mW.

If you want to imbue your sensor with the ability to carry on periodic communications, you’re looking at a power requirement of between 1 and 100 mW. By using just a small amount of radioactive material, the Cornell team’s MEMS-based piezoelectric generator was able to create enough output energy to enable a high-power RF pulse every three minutes.

The material in question is nickel-63 (Ni-63), a mildly radioactive isotope having a few extra neutrons in its nucleus. When it decays, Ni-63 emits beta particles—high-energy electrons that are relatively innocuous.

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