By Anupum Pant
Heart and Pacemakers
Your heart is a complex device. It comes with its own sophisticated electrical system that controls the rate and rhythm of your heartbeats. The electrical system is responsible to make the heart contract and as a result pump blood into your body. It is required to keep a proper rate and rhythm. There is a whole lot to learn about how the human heart works. But that is for some other day. Or, you can read it here – [Link]
As years pass, like any other electrical system, even the heart is prone to electrical faults. Faulty signals can make the rhythmic beating, non-rhythmic. This can make life difficult for a person. Enter pacemaker…
Pacemakers are small devices that are placed in the chest. They use low energy pulses to maintain the rate and rhythm of your heartbeats by overcoming the faulty electrical signals. Sometimes Permanent pacemakers have to be used to control long-term heart problems. For this, they are required to run for a long time without replacement. Who’d want their chest dug every two months to replace the pacemaker battery?!
Nuclear batteries work due to a nonstop radioactive decay of certain elements. They can last for incredibly long times. Due to their extremely long lives and high densities they are used in space devices and other underwater systems; basically, in systems where replacement of batteries is not an option. So, scientists from the past thought – why not use them to power pacemakers too!
In the 1960s, scientists at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico began exploring the feasibility of being able to use nuclear power for pacemakers. The idea was to develop a penny sized battery that could be used with a pacemaker and could be implanted in a human body. It was made. And they decided to call it an atomic battery or Radioisotope battery or simply a nuclear battery.
Despite bearing the name “nuclear” battery, they were not really little nuclear reactors as they didn’t use chain reactions to produce energy. So, there was no danger of a meltdown. They were safe devices. No radiation related issues were ever reported.
Agreed these batteries were costly and weighed a lot, but that was not the problem. The big problem was that they contained hazardous material which had to be recovered once a patient died. There were several instances when a person had died; the living relative had returned the nuclear battery, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission never received it.
However, later in the year 1988 last of the nuclear batteries were used. Now they were being replaced with long lasting (~10 years) lithium batteries.
Even today Los Alamos National Laboratory has a fact sheet on their website that mentions what to do in case you find a nuclear battery.