Engineers Create Greener Alternative To Lithium-ion Battery

Australian boffins develop ‘proton battery’ that allegedly removes the environmental challenges posed by toxic lithium-ion batteries

Researchers down under at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) have developed a cleaner alternative to conventional lithium-ion batteries.

RMIT announced back in late July an experimental ‘proton battery’ could one day be developed to power homes, vehicles and devices.

Indeed, the RMIT researchers claim to have have tripled the energy density of their experimental proton batteries, which uses a carbon electrode to store hydrogen that has been split from water, and then works as a hydrogen fuel cell to produce electricity.

Dr Shahin Heidari (left), Professor John Andrews and Dr Seyed Niya with a demonstration of the proton battery operating two small fans in the RMIT lab.
Image credit RMIT University

Lithium-ion problems

Lithium-ion batteries are currently used to power smartphones, laptops, appliances and other devices, thanks to the fact that they have a high energy density, which means they can store a lot of energy in a relatively small space.

But lithium-ion batteries are also highly toxic and consume scarce natural resources, and are difficult to recycle.

If they end up in landfills, they can release harmful toxins into the soil and pollute waterways. And the mining and processing of lithium and the other metals that lithium-ion batteries can result in significant carbon emissions.

Lithium is also only found in a small number of countries, and as the demand for EVs increase, it may outstrip supply.

Lithium-ion batteries can also pose a fire risk, as evidenced when an industrial Tesla battery pack designed for use by power utilities caught fire in California in September 2022.

The fire risk with lithium-ion batteries is also an issue for electric vehicles, especially if they are involved in a crash. Lithium-ion battery fires can last for days and present a problem for the emergency services tackling them.

Proton battery

Into this mix comes at the announcement about the proton battery, and RMIT University has said it has patented the latest developments in this technology internationally.

The new proton battery has an energy density of 245 watt hours per kilogram, nearly three times the energy density of the team’s 2018 prototype.

The RMIT team is said to be now embarking on a two-year research collaboration with Italian-based international automotive component supplier, Eldor Corporation, to develop and prototype this technology.

RMIT has been collaborating with Eldor over the past five years on the same technology.

Viable alternative?

Lead researcher RMIT Professor John Andrews said recent design improvements to their proton battery meant it was becoming competitive as a carbon-neutral alternative to lithium-ion batteries.

“As the world shifts to intermittent renewable energy to achieve net-zero greenhouse emissions, additional storage options that are efficient, cheap, safe and have secure supply chains will be in high demand,” said Professor Andrews, from the School of Engineering.

“That’s where this proton battery – which is a very equitable and safe technology – could have real value and why we are keen to continue developing it into a viable commercial alternative,” he said. “There are also no end-of-life environmental challenges with a proton battery, since all components and materials can be rejuvenated, reused or recycled.”

The team has demonstrated the proton battery as a working device that can power several small fans and a light for several minutes.

“Our battery has an energy-per-unit mass already comparable with commercially-available lithium-ion batteries, while being much safer and better for the planet in terms of taking less resources out of the ground,” Professor Andrews said.

“Our battery is also potentially capable of very fast charging,” he added. “The main resource used in our proton battery is carbon, which is abundant, available in all countries and cheap compared to the resources needed for other types of rechargeable battery such as lithium, cobalt and vanadium.”

Fuel cell approach?

So how does the proton battery work?

Well apparently during charging, the proton battery splits water molecules to generate protons, which bond to a carbon electrode.

Professor Andrews said the proton battery avoided the energy-wasting steps of storing hydrogen gas at high pressure, and then splitting these gas molecules again in fuel cells.

“When discharging, protons are released again from the carbon electrode and pass through a membrane to combine with oxygen from the air to form water – this is the reaction that generates power,” he said.

“Our proton battery has much lower losses than conventional hydrogen systems, making it directly comparable to lithium-ion batteries in terms of energy efficiency.”