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Wednesday, 28 April 1965

Senator PALTRIDGE - Mr. President, Senator Prowse was good enough to indicate that he would ask me this question. I am glad that he did, in view of the technical nature of some parts of the answer made available by the Minister for National Development. The Minister advises me that the article "Britain Sees 'Beer Bottle* Power Units " refers to the development in the United Kingdom of small electric generators powered by radio isotopes. Several other countries, in particular the United States of America and Russia, have also been working in this field. In these devices, heat generated by the decay of radio isotopes is concerted directly into electricity by the use of thermo-electric or thermionic converters. Most American units to date have employed thermo-electric conversion whereas the British unit apparently uses thermionic conversion, which is a little more efficient.

Although units of up to one kilowatt or more are considered feasible, most units so far built have a rating of only a few watts or tens of watts. A single electric light bulb requires about 50 to 100 watts. The high cost, weight and life of these devices depends largely on the type of isotopes used. The cost of isotopes per unit of output is extremely high and prospects of significantly reducing them are not generally considered very promising. The present cost of suitable isotopes range from an estimated 23 dollars to 1,600 dollars per watt of radio isotope. Hence, to operate a single 100 watt electric light bulb the minimum cost of the isotope would amount to about 2,300 dollars.

It will be obvious that for most applications requiring significant amounts of power, devices of this kind would be ruled out on the score of cost. In addition, there are certain problems involved in their servicing because of the extreme radioactive nature of the isotopes. It is therefore very unlikely that we shall see their widespread adoption for domestic purposes in remote locations for many decades, if at all. However, they will continue to be used in increasing numbers in isolated areas for unmanned lighthouses, weather stations and space purposes et cetera.

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