Breakthrough from American scientists means your smartphone or tablet could be sugar-powered in just a few years
Scientists at Virginia Tech University have created a battery that runs on sugar, which hopefully means that an end to poor battery life may be closer than ever before.
A team headed by Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at the university, has developed a power cell with an unmatched energy density, which could lead to the production of batteries that are cheap, refillable and biodegradable.
The findings, published yesterday in the journal Nature Communications, outline how recharging a battery in the future could be as simple as adding more sugar, much like filling a printer cartridge with ink.
While concepts for other sugar batteries have been developed in the past, the one from Zhang and his team has an energy density an order of magnitude higher than others, allowing it to run longer before refuelling. The team’s “biobattery” releases energy from sugar instead of chemicals such as lithium which are used in cells found in today’s electronic gadgets, and Zhang believes that his invention would be capable of powering devices such as smartphones, tablets and video game consoles in the near future.
“Sugar is a perfect energy storage compound in nature,” Zhang said of his team’s findings. “So it’s only logical that we try to harness this natural power in an environmentally friendly way to produce a battery.”
To create the battery, Zhang and his colleagues constructed a non-natural synthetic enzymatic pathway, which strips all charge potentials from the sugar, to generate electricity in an enzymatic fuel cell. Basic biocatalyst enzymes are then used instead of metals such as platinum, which is a typical component in conventional batteries but is extremely expensive.
Like all fuel cells, the sugar battery combines fuel – in this case, maltodextrin, a polysaccharide made from partial hydrolysis of starch – with air to generate electricity and water as the main by-products.
“We are releasing all electron charges stored in the sugar solution slowly, step-by-step, by using an enzyme cascade,” Zhang said.
The discovery could revolutionise the battery industry, which typically comes under fire for the harmful chemicals it uses in the manufacturing process. Recycling batteries is a challenging operation, with facilities lacking in many areas, leading many consumers to simply throw them away, meaning the dead batteries end up in landfills where they may leak and damage the environment.
This is not the only discovery regarding energy from natural sources made by Professor Zhang. In the past year, he has also published articles on creating edible starch from non-food plants and developed a new way to extract hydrogen to power vehicles in an economical and environmentally friendly way.
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