YouTuber Builds Beautifully Inefficient Nuclear Powered 'Tetris' Machine

Solar panels wrapped around tritium tubes generate just enough energy to power a simple 'Tetris' style handheld.
Image: YouTube screengrab

Nuclear power is one of the most efficient forms of electricity generation on Earth—most of the time. Lots of things are radioactive, and not all levels of radiation are useful for generating power. That didn’t stop YouTube tinkerer Ian Charnas from retrofitting a handheld gaming device with a nuclear powered battery that takes two months to charge and lets you game for about an hour, all to play a little Tetris.


As first spotted by Hackaday, Charnas’ handheld Tetris style machine uses tritium as its source of nuclear fuel. Tritium is a rare isotope of hydrogen that’s gaseous and mildly radioactive. As he explains in a YouTube video walking viewers through his process, anyone can buy glass tubes of tritium that give off a pleasant radioactive glow in various colors. Charnas’ plan was to use tritium to create a solar cell that converted the light of the tritium into energy.

The design for the tritium battery isn’t new, and it's also not powerful. For the project, Charnas laid out a line of tritium vials and wrapped it in solar cells. That was the easy part.  The hard part was finding a battery that could hold the energy generated faster than it would dissipate. Charnas tracked down thin-film solid-state batteries that leak very slowly.

The problem is that the solid-state batteries are nightmares to work with, he explained in the video. They’re so small and finicky that it’s hard to get them lined up properly on a circuit board. Machines typically handle the precise measurements of aligning a solid-state battery, but Charnas had to do it by hand.

Originally, his goal was to use a tritium cell to power a Game Boy. At maximum power, his nuclear fuel cell was only generating 1.5 microwatts, though. “It turns out an actual Game Boy uses almost a million microwatts which is way too much,” he said in his video. “So I bought a bunch of cheap knockoffs from the Dollar Store and found one that only uses about 1,000 microwatts.”

The handheld device Charnas used was a simple Tetris style machine running the game on a cheap LED screen with no backlight. It’s the perfect system to test such a ludicrous nuclear powered battery, and Charnas charged the batteries for two months before flipping on the machine.

It ran for one hour. It’s certainly not the most efficient Tetris style machine ever invented but it’s still a fascinating feat of engineering. Charnas is raffling off the nuclear powered Tetrix machine and donating the proceeds to a charity that helps children living near Chernobyl. Raffle tickets are only $1.