So my knowledge of radioactive isotopes is limited to a series of youtube videos. I assume this idea is very dangerous and should never be attempted, but my curiosity still thrives. I own a tritium keyfob light, I've read it poses almost no threat to keep on me and it's a cool piece of science. I wonder if a handwarmer can work in the same idea.

I would like to know if a radioactive handwarmer is possible. The design would be simple, assume 5cm by 8cm by 2cm object (fits well in most hands). I assume for it to work one would need to put a radioactive core in the center, some material around that to turn the radiation into heat, and a protective shielding around the outside. Dimensions can change if needed, but that's the target. I don't know what materials, dimensions, or proportions would work best to ensure warmth and safety.

My questions are as follows:

1- What materials are recommended for this construction?

2- How hot can the hand warmer become without pumping out harmful/lethal radiation? (If specifics are needed, the hand warmer is at arms length from vital organs in the users hand)

3- How harmful/lethal would this device be if it were to maintain a warm heat during a cold day. (if temperature is needed, assume the air temp is 15c, the hand warmer should get up to 38c with some insulation such as a hand wrapped around it [EDIT: As suggested, temperature isn't as good a measurement as knowing exactly what the power output should be. If possible, try to aim for 3-4 thermal Watts] )

4- For any answers to the above, how long would it last? Where would the half-life stand?

If this is not the right place to ask this question, can someone point me in the right direction to find these answers?

Thank you!

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    $\begingroup$ Temperature depends on lots of things (insulation, environment, etc.) You might want to think in terms of power instead. A hand warmer doesn't need much power. Even 3-4 watts can be useful. (Think how difficult it would be to hold a 40W lightbulb for a long period). $\endgroup$
    – BowlOfRed
    Nov 30, 2016 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ @BowlOfRed Good point, I will try to find out how much power a normal hand warmer puts out and edit my question as such. Thank you! $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2016 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ Rough estimates are exactly that, rough. But I picked gloves instead as more useful for say biking into work. But although tritium is safe, (it's in most local drinking water supplies), I still would like to see, in grams, how much the tritium on a watchdial adds up to. Then we might have an idea around safety. This following link is just pure scary: mentalfloss.com/article/12732/… $\endgroup$
    – user108787
    Nov 30, 2016 at 21:23
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    $\begingroup$ With more access to materials I think 10 grams or so of Pu238 would make better hand-warmer I think. It's a powerful alpha-emitter often used for RHUs. $\endgroup$
    – OON
    Nov 30, 2016 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ Concerning power requirements I suppose those batteries are for standard voltage ~3.8 V. If the one with 5200 mAh is claimed to work 5 hours at max setting, you get something like 4W. $\endgroup$
    – OON
    Nov 30, 2016 at 22:02

3 Answers 3


Rough estimations on the feasibility, or otherwise, of tritium powered hand warmers/gloves.

  1. You obviously want to minimise radiation, so you could accept that your hands would be kept at 35 degrees Celsius, (that is, around their normal temperature).

  2. The skin area of an average human hand, (allowing for the glove) is say 10 cm long by 6 cm wide (by 4 sides) which amounts to 240 sq. cms, converts to O.024 square metres that you need to keep at this temperature.

  3. The tritium would warm a thin layer of water, as thick gloves are useless, so total volume of water is 0.024 square metres by say 0.5 cm (0.005m) thickness, gives a volume of 0.00012 litres of water.

  4. 1 gram of tritium produces Tritium Output a tiny 0.3625 W.

  5. An electric kettle is rated at, wait for it, around 2000 W.

  6. So do you want to carry around (possibly far) more than 1 gram of tritium, even though, says Wikipedia Tritium health risks

Tritium is a low energy beta emitter, it is not dangerous externally (its beta particles are unable to penetrate the skin), but it can be a radiation hazard when inhaled, ingested via food or water, or absorbed through the skin.

enter image description here

Image and Extract Source : Early uses of radium in household items

Early 20th-century doctors also jumped onto the radioactive bandwagon with both feet, producing suppositories, heating pads and radioactive coins (used to “charge” small amounts of water), all intended to treat rheumatism, weakness, malaise and just about any health complaint for which a fast and magical cure was needed.

My thanks to WetSavannaAnimalakaRodVance for this comment:

Many of the radioactive medical treatments did "work" well in the short term: it wasn't for no reason that they caught on. What they were doing, however, was destroying the body's ability to feel pain. Many patients (particularly of back pain and rheumatoid arthritis) enjoyed relatively pain free seemingly returned-to-health life for a little while before the radiation destroyed the body as well.

I wouldn't think a tritium powered hand warmer would fly off the shelves.

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    $\begingroup$ The hand-warmer with 5200 mAh battery (most likely with 3.8 V) is claimed to be capable to work at max setting for 5 hours. That gives something like 4 W for practically usable hand-warmer. It's not like you are planning to boil your hands. $\endgroup$
    – OON
    Nov 30, 2016 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting! So 10 grams of tritium in a case that can absorb the energy and transfer it to heat might be enough to be felt in cold weather? I know I mentioned Tritium in my question, however are there other radioactive materials that could keep hands warm in the winter? I was thinking a smaller piece of a higher radioactive material in a case of something like lead might produce more heat, however I also know my knowledge is very stunted in the subject. $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2016 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ Awesome picture! Actually many of the radioactive medical treatments did "work" well in the short term: it wasn't for no reason that they caught on. What they were doing, however, was destroying the body's ability to feel pain. Many patients (particularly of back pain and rheumatoid arthritis) enjoyed relatively pain free seemingly returned-to-health life for a little while before the radiation destroyed the body as well! $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2016 at 22:48
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    $\begingroup$ Side note, making a hand warmer out of 10 grams of tritium would cost about $300,000. $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2016 at 23:09
  • $\begingroup$ I think @WetSavannaAnimalakaRodVance 's citation is not okay. The nerves are the most resistant against radiation in the cells of the human body. It is because it destructs complex organic structures at most, and the genes (DNA) are the most complex organic compounds in the cells. But the DNA is needed only for the multiplication of the cells, thus the most sensitive cells are against radiation, which are multiplying fast (these are: skin, white blood cells, bowel internal wall, hair roots). And nerves practically doesn't multiply. $\endgroup$
    – peterh
    Dec 5, 2016 at 6:35

Feasible or not this device will ever be approved (I would lobby against it too).

Estimates show that the radiation dose, for a $\rm 4W$ glove, such device would be able to depart (an astonishing) $\rm 4Gy$ ($\rm 400rad$) daily to an $\rm 80kg$ person. In contrast a CAT scan departs $\rm ≈ 4mGy$ for the person undergoing it. How do you compare the usefulness of a CAT scan to a thousand higher radiation dose hand warmer.

No matter how one could shield such device, knowing the Operation of the Radiation Protection System National Authorities will never approve that amount of radiation dose for such (trivial) use. They would probably recommend you to put your hands in the pockets.


Sorry for the late answer.

Fly to a country which uses a lot of nuclear power, for example, France.

Find a hotel/apartment where you can have a clima device which has a heating mode. Turn it on (in heating mode). Put your hands into its outgoing air stream. Task done.

If you are in the U.S., the whole story can be solved from around \$1000-\$2000. From the EU, \$100-$200.

Anyways the best materials would be

  • exclusively alpha-emitters
  • being also a very good alpha insulators
  • emitting enough strong radiation to produce enough heat even from a small thing

I think, radium is probably the best idea for that.

You need some cm lead shielding, too.

The result would weigh around some tens of kgs and would look around so as @CountTo10 's answer, but it would be much weightier because of the shielding.

It would be enough safe for everyday use. Also medical radiation devices use this shielding.

In the current era it would be totally impossible to make such devices (furthermore, you don't need it, it would cost tens of thousands \$, while you can buy an electrical hand heater for $10).


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