A nuclear reactor in his chest: how pacemakers work with an eternal battery?

Pacemakers are used to stimulate a regular heartbeat when the natural electrical system of the pacemaker in the body stops performing its function or not working properly. For many years for pacemakers searched for the best “batteries”. Among them was thermoelectric batteries containing 2 to 4 curies of plutonium-238, a radioactive element with a half life of 88 years. How did those eternal batteries? How dangerous is it to humans?

How to operate a plutonium pacemakers

As the term “thermoelectric”, the heat from the decaying plutonium is used to generate electricity that stimulates the heart. In the early 2000s in the US were between 50 to 100 people with pacemakers, working on atomic energy. Every time one of these people died, the pacemaker was removed and sent to Los Alamos, where he subsequently recovered and restored plutonium.

As seen in the photo of a pacemaker (without plutonium) above, the electronics device is enclosed in an epoxy resin. Solid titanium case is designed to withstand any likely event of damage, including gunshots and cremation.

The radiation dose on the surface of the pacemaker is approximately 5-15 mrem (microbar, “roentgen equivalent”, unit) per hour from the emitted gamma rays and neutrons. Estimated total body irradiation is approximately 0.1 REM per year for a patient and approximately 7.5 mrem per year for his wife. For comparison, 100 mrem is the background radiation the average person receives in a year.

Often plutonium pacemakers had outlived their owners. In 1973 an employee of the Medical center Newark Beth Israel Dr. Victor Parsonnet set 20-year-old woman a pacemaker company Numec NU-5. At that time, the device treated the patient in 23 000 dollars in terms of the present course. However, in the long term nuclear pacemaker proved to be very economical – any other similar device for such a period would be required to change four or five times.

According Parsonnet, NU-5 set of 139 patients. Most of them are no longer alive.

A battery in that pacemaker, as we have said, is a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) that uses the thermal energy released during the natural decay of radioactive isotopes and converts it into electricity using thermoelectric generators. Compared to nuclear fission reactions that occur in conventional nuclear power plants, RTGs are much more compact. Efficiency is low power output, however they require no maintenance and work for decades. Many satellites that we launched in the cold depths of space, like those of the “Voyager” carrying a RTGs with PU-238 — this is the secret of their long-lasting work.

Why don’t we use these everlasting batteries everywhere? The fact that we ran out of plutonium-238. Once it is produced as a side material in the production of nuclear weapons. However, those days are long gone, and to organize production of plutonium-238 did not.

Read more about production of plutonium-238 read in this article.

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