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Power Handhelds Hardware

Scientists Powering Batteries with Soda, Tree Sap 216

Posted by Hemos
from the power-UP dept.
BobB writes "St. Louis University researchers have concocted batteries fueled by almost any kind of sugar, from tree sap to flat soda, and that could be used to power everything from computers to cell phones. Their thinking: If sugar can jack up the human body, why not electronics?"
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Scientists Powering Batteries with Soda, Tree Sap

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  • by Ihlosi (895663) on Monday March 26, 2007 @09:52AM (#18487863)
    It's hygroscopic. Of course, if the batteries can deal with that, that's cool.
  • Jacked up. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by crazyjeremy (857410) * on Monday March 26, 2007 @09:52AM (#18487869) Homepage Journal
    Sugar is sticky and it can jack up electronics. I don't think that's a good thing...
    • by twitter (104583) on Monday March 26, 2007 @10:00AM (#18487955) Homepage Journal

      Sugar is sticky and it can jack up electronics. I don't think that's a good thing...

      Unless your blood is the nearest source of sugar.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by beckerist (985855)
      Car batteries have extremely corrosive sulfuric acid. I think sticky is easily handled...
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by crazyjeremy (857410) *
        Car batteries are sealed and doesn't get refilled often. This type of fuel cell would need to be refilled regularly, thus requiring the user to handle sugar substances. I doubt people on slashdot would ever spill stuff, but normal people might.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by the_bard17 (626642)
          So you take the battery out of the device first, place the device a safe distance away from the battery, then refill the battery. After ensuring that there is no spilled liquid on the exterior surface of the battery, reinstall it into the device.

          That was simple.

          'Course, we're dealing with the same folks who still manage to spill liquid on their laptops, water plants over their (expensive) TVs, etc. On the other hand, there's probably no hope for these folks, so we should be ok with the above.
        • I doubt people on slashdot would ever spill stuff, but normal people might.

          Yeah, nerds, geeks and IT choads have a reputation for cleanliness and orderliness.

          Loser [viaarena.com]

          MacLoser [johnnylundy.com]

          A third loser [imageshack.us]

          TEH WINNAR!!1 [pano1544.com]

          Ok, that last one is actually a post-Katrina pic. But still -- gimme a fucking break with the slash elitism.
          Judging by the slashdotters I know, most people on slashdot live like animals.
          • Judging by the slashdotters I know, most people on slashdot live like animals.
            it's called SARCASM. Here's a link in case your vocabulary matches your ability to perceive sarcasm. Whut do dat SARCASM werd mean? [wiktionary.org]
          • I am not a tidy person, but my office is often worse than any of those pictures. My house is easily 10,000 times worse than any of those pictures. No stacks of shelves and boxes 12 feet high, no overflowing totes full of tangled wires. Do I need to post pictures of my computer room to give the internet a standard of what a cluttered room looks like?
        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          Car batteries are sealed and doesn't get refilled often.

          Those statements are incorrect and correct, in that order.

          Actually SOME car batteries ARE sealed. The ones whose insides look like modeling clay laid out smooth on tinfoil and wrapped up are sealed. They don't outgas and they can be mounted inside the vehicle, upside down, et cetera.

          But the vast majority of vehicles do not have that kind of battery. I don't think I've even heard of them being OE in any vehicle. Most vehicles have batteries that cont

    • and the stuff that's in a lot of batteries would be as bad or worse.

      The trick is... Like normal batteries, they'd keep it in a sealed container!
  • I recall some previous stories about better batteries than this that could be about the same amount of eco-friendliness. What's up with all the batteries lately? Automobiles could probably be the most worthwhile reason to invent all of these batteries, but that means that it's incredibly likely that the portable power market will become the next oil market.
    • by Shihar (153932) on Monday March 26, 2007 @10:01AM (#18487973)
      No, autos are the least interesting reason to invent new batteries. Automobiles need energy dense, quick to charge batteries far more then they need eco-friendly batteries. Don't get me wrong, environmentally friendly batteries would be nice, but that means starting over at square one with a new technology. It is far more likely that we will be able to squeeze enough out of an old technology by modifying it in some way to achieve what we need. The eco-friendly stuff will come after the roads are clogged with less-then-friendly battery powered cars.
      • by DeePCedure (99267) on Monday March 26, 2007 @10:33AM (#18488379)
        Judging from TFA, I don't think charge times will be a huge issue. Just empty the battery's resevoir, refill it with fresh sugary goodnes and enzymes, then drive away. The spent fuel is biodegradeable so you can dump it in the sewer. Refueling would probably end up being infrastructurally similar to current oil-based fuel distribution in order to ensure reliable deliverey and the proper sugar/enzyme mix.

        Even if the enzyme reaction takes a little time to get going and build up a proper charge, having multiple batteries running in an asynchronous parallel setup instead of serially should keep people moving. When battery A dies, the car switches to battery B and the "low fuel" light comes on. If you refuel battery A before battery B dies, you never have to worry about waiting for the chemical reaction to ramp up. And that doesn't even account for the possibility of "jump-start" catalysts that could accelerate the chemical reaction through the ramp-up phase before returning to it's normal electron producing rate.

        However, nothing significant was mentioned in TFA about energy density, so that's still a concern.
        • by Fordiman (689627)
          Theoretically, spent fuel is *drinkable*. As is the unspent fuel, if you don't mind insulin shock.
        • by wings (27310) on Monday March 26, 2007 @12:52PM (#18490391) Homepage
          The spent fuel is biodegradeable so you can dump it in the sewer.
          If one person does it and it is biodegradeable, it isn't a problem.
          If 300Million people do it, you have an environmental disaster.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by DeePCedure (99267)
            How would it be an environmental disaster? The main byproduct of the enzymatic reaction is water.

            Is it an environmental disaster when 300M people take a shower everyday? Wash dishes? Do laundry? Flush a toilet? What about when a city with a hybrid or combined waste-water/rain-water sewage system gets hit by a storm? You have minor problems here and there, but rarely anything I'd care to qualify as an environmental disaster.

            You could focus on the non-water byproducts, but how would that be any different from
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by pclminion (145572)

            If one person does it and it is biodegradeable, it isn't a problem. If 300Million people do it, you have an environmental disaster.

            That does not necessarily follow. We have no idea what this biodegradable waste product IS. The article is short on details. Urine is also biodegradable, and produced by everyone on the planet, and as far as I can tell we're not in the middle of Urine Armageddon...

    • Using a power source like this would be a great boon to any medical devices that currently run off batteries - i.e. pacemakers, infusion pumps,cochlear implants etc. Hell, you could use it to power via induction external gadgets - your cellphone, watch, computer wireless modem, heck - internal computer with computer terminal glasses, etc.
      Build in a failsafe so that it doesn't reduce your blood sugar to below a critical level, so that you don't go into a hypoglycemic shock, and you're good to go.
  • If you can do it with sugar, what about Caffeine?

    I don't know about you, but I get a lot more out of Caffeine than sugar. ;-)
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by c_fel (927677)
      Caffeine is not a source of energy, it's a stimulant. It only helps the body to consume energy you already have in reserve. So you cannot build a caffeine battery.
      • Sure you could. It could be a two stage battery:

        Take Mountain Dew + Human Being = sugar from mt dew + sugar/energy from human being ---sugar battery process---> energy!

        I'm tired. Time to go get more caffeine!

      • Re:Obvious: (Score:4, Insightful)

        by truthsearch (249536) on Monday March 26, 2007 @10:28AM (#18488307) Homepage Journal
        So can we build a battery out of fat and give it caffeine to stimulate energy output? That would make for one disgusting battery. But we'd have a virtually unlimited natural resource!
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by MrCopilot (871878)
          So can we build a battery out of fat and give it caffeine to stimulate energy output? That would make for one disgusting battery. But we'd have a virtually unlimited natural resource!

          We have already have this for transportation, it is called a Bicycle.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Rotten168 (104565)
          They do have cars that run on restaurant oil waste [journeytoforever.org].
  • Stupid. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Spazntwich (208070) on Monday March 26, 2007 @09:55AM (#18487895)
    If people are bothering to create batteries run off food, why would they pick one of the least energy dense macronutrients?

    At 9 kilocalories per gram to carbs' 4, fats kick the crap out of carbohydrates with regard to energy density. Strikes me as odd.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by OSU ChemE (974181)
      Since TFA was a bit light on the technical side (and I couldn't find anything on the ACS site yet) I'm just going to SWAG a few reasons:
      • The enzymes available (or that they developed) only work on sugar molecules; not to say they couldn't develop enzymes that work on fat
      • Sugar is water soluable and water can be made relatively conductive; fat, not so much on either count
      • Fat is has more energy/gram but fewer grams/volume, though 9:4 energy and 0.8/1.2 specific gravity means it's probably not an issue
      • More
      • by linguizic (806996)
        I believe the plant that we eat that has the most fat is the avocado, and those are expensive enough as it is with only a fraction of the population consuming them. That leads me to the following(kind of):

        I assume that we will be getting the sugar to power these batteries from corn syrup as it is the cheapest supply of sugar we have available to us. Per acre of corn, if choose to extract energy from it, which would said acre yield more corn syrup or ethanol? If the case is ethanol than we have a proble
    • Hmm... I think I will go and see if there is already a patent on whale-oil batteries. If not, I'll just jump straight to step 3. Profit!
    • by puck01 (207782) on Monday March 26, 2007 @10:15AM (#18488139)
      Offhand, sugars are water soluable, relatively small molecules and probably easy to harness for their energy (the fuel mixture will readily mix to keep the remaining sugar moledules exposed to whatever catalyst and other molecules it is reacting with). Because they're simple molecules, there probably is only one major reaction required to split the sugars and obtain energy.

      Fats are not water soluable, more complex chemically and thicker in general. I would think coming up with a stable reaction for the entire amount of fat in the tank would be difficult since they are not water soluable (you would need to mix them in a lipophilic solution) and they are thicker. I would imagine they would be more diffult to handle, especially if the idea is to make they reusable.

      Then again, it been awhile since I've done any chemisty. Sounds like an interesting concept.

      Way to go SLU (graduated from med school there)!
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by vertinox (846076)
      fats kick the crap out of carbohydrates with regard to energy density

      Creating machines that could "potentially" run off fuel made from dead humans might be a "potentially" bad thing.

      Of course to be fair, you never have to run faster than the flesh eating machines... Just faster than anyone else you happen to be with.
    • Basically, hydrocarbons (petroleum, etc) are very sugar-like chains. Basically carbs, with less oxygen. So is this technology adaptable to that? Then you have the energy density problem completely solved (though losing the renewable aspect).
    • I don't think so. I would expect that fats are a lot less efficient to make. Energy from plants is a lot more efficient to get than energy from animals. There aren't many plants that make fats, I think coconut is possibly the biggest exception. They may store energy more densely, but converting plant matter to animal matter is far less efficient than just using the plant matter.

      I don't like the idea of using food for fuel or energy though. I'd much rather support cellulose to ethanol conversion because
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by OSU ChemE (974181)

        I don't like the idea of using food for fuel or energy though. I'd much rather support cellulose to ethanol conversion because it generally wouldn't mean deciding between two very different needs, and cellulose is readily available and often just wasted in food production because it's in the parts of harvested of plants that are not food.

        I agree with you halfway on this one. I think cellulose has good potential as an energy source, since as you said it's often available as refuse/by-product or can be raised as its own crop (grasses and such). But ethanol isn't necessarily the best end product. Converting the cellulose to sugar has been (and to some extent, still is) the big challenge. Once you have the sugar, it may be more efficient to use it directly in the fuel cells from the article, rather than going through the fermentation and purif

  • Skepticism (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Shihar (153932) on Monday March 26, 2007 @09:57AM (#18487907)
    The idea is neat and has been around for some time, but the article fails to answer some pretty basic questions. The most important question is if they can actually get these batteries to pump out enough juice to power anything of importance. They said that they got the battery to run a calculator, but calculators are EXTREMELY low powered devices. The fact that you can run a calculator with a tiny primitive solar strip gives you an idea of how little power some calculators actually need. When they get one of these batteries (even a large one) powering a MP3 player, I will be impressed. Until then, I am deeply skeptical that there is anything to this.

    The other issue here is size. Even if they can pump out enough juice, they need the batteries to be small to be useful in most modern applications. The batteries for most electronic devices need to very small. There might be a niche market for this sort of thing, but I am very skeptical it is going to make any sort of splash in the consumer electronics field.
    • The most important question is if they can actually get these batteries to pump out enough juice to power anything of importance.

      Making electricity out of sugar would be a first step towards limitless energy for implanted devices (the other steps would be making sure that the whole process doesn't kill the recipient). Many of those don't need a lot of power (for example pacemakers).

    • The idea is neat and has been around for some time, but the article fails to answer some pretty basic questions. The most important question is if they can actually get these batteries to pump out enough juice to power anything of importance. ...

      The other issue here is size. ...

      What about having a water cooler sized charge station in your home... dump in your sugars and plug in your cell phone/mp3 player/laptop to charge their current rechargeable batteries. You don't have to worry about power and size

  • Better link (Score:3, Informative)

    by Stile 65 (722451) on Monday March 26, 2007 @09:57AM (#18487911) Homepage Journal
    There's better coverage of the story at Physorg [physorg.com] (via Engadget).

    Question: If the fuel cell contains enzymes, couldn't a 2-stage fuel cell be created that has cellulases, thus making waste switchgrass/etc. a potential direct fuel? Why would we need to even bother with cellulosic ethanol then? Or is this even possible?
    • Re:Better link (Score:4, Informative)

      by OSU ChemE (974181) on Monday March 26, 2007 @10:27AM (#18488293) Journal
      The bad thing about using cellulosic materials directly is that they tend to resist being broken down into sugar while they are in their raw/natural state. They need to be pretreated, which usually involves some combination of grinding, heating, soaking, 'steam explosion' (quick pressure release), to obtain a reasonable yield of sugar. If you don't pretreat the feedstock, you won't get nearly as much sugar, and you battery will be bigger because you're only using X% of the initial material. And if you use pretreated material in your battery, why not just convert the cellulose to sugar outside the battery, wher you can better control the reaction conditions and yields? Plus, the enzymes needed to convert the cellulose to sugar and the sugar to electricity may need different reaction conditions, as enzymes are often picky about their pH, concentrations, temperatures, co-reactants, etc.
    • by MrCopilot (871878)
      Check the Tonnage to Gallons conversion figures and it will be readily apparent why it is not a viable direct fuel. There are also leftover bits (bits might be a small understatement) that cannot be converted unlike ethanol which is totally consumed.
  • Awkward.. (Score:4, Funny)

    by Rob T Firefly (844560) on Monday March 26, 2007 @09:59AM (#18487937) Homepage Journal

    Their thinking: If sugar can jack up the human body, why not electronics?
    A lot of things can "jack up" the human body, a limited amount of which I'd ever want to use as household power sources.

    "Sorry mom, I'll have to call you back later, my battery's about to die. I promise I'll call back just as soon as I've shagged my phone.."
    • I promise I'll call back just as soon as I've shagged my phone..
      Your ideas are intriguing and I wish to sign up for your videocast.
  • Just like corn.

    There are some serious downsides to finding ways to use human food as fuel.
    • by danpsmith (922127) on Monday March 26, 2007 @10:37AM (#18488427)

      Just like corn. There are some serious downsides to finding ways to use human food as fuel.

      Yes but you are missing the upside of this one. Unlike corn, sugar comes from a variety of sources, many of which are cheaply producable or directly obtainable from nature. For instance, the battery has been shown to use tree sap. You might say, well there's not enough tree sap, yes. But there's an abundance of sugar. Corn is one thing, not only must you grow the corn but you must break it down in a specific process for it to become fuel. This, essentially, means that you don't need to do that process. This is the ability to directly use some food products as fuel without additional conversion. Given how cheap food production has become, I'd say that's not bad.

  • by lawpoop (604919) on Monday March 26, 2007 @10:01AM (#18487963) Homepage Journal
    " If sugar can jack up the human body, why not electronics?"

    Next up, caffiene for your cell phone, and cocaine for your PDA!
    • by tnk1 (899206)

      Next up, caffiene for your cell phone, and cocaine for your PDA!


      Crack for your Crackberry?

  • by xxxJonBoyxxx (565205) on Monday March 26, 2007 @10:05AM (#18488025)
    That's nothing - my clock runs off a potato. (e.g., http://www.unit5.org/christjs/Potato%20Battery.htm [unit5.org])

    Sometimes I wonder if the Slashdot editors are really junior high school drop-outs...
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by OSU ChemE (974181)
      The potato is providing none of the energy in that example. The galvanic potential [wikipedia.org] between the electrodes is what is producing the electricity. The potato is an electrolyte in (relatively) solid form. In the battery from the article the sugar is actually consumed to produce the electricity, whereas the potato isn't.

      So not so much informative as misleading.

  • Their thinking: If sugar can jack up the human body, why not electronics?

    Generally, when people in Britain talk about 'jacking up', they mean injecting Heroin. So is the next news story going to be:

    Scientists Powering Batteries with Heroin, Cocaine
    Their thinking: If class-a [google.com] drugs can jack up the human body, why not electronics?

    When first reading that summary I seemed to be trapped in the movie Trainspotting. Meanwhile in other news: Pete Doherty's been spotted outside a local shop after buying all t

    • >Warning: this post may contain British humour. Please take this into account when replying.

      Oh. *flips through old book* Okay...

      "Jolly Good, Old Bean."
  • Now, if only they can make it draw sugar from human blood and make the device and all its waste products fully biocompatible, they will revolutionize the parts of the medical industry that deal with electrically powered implants. Think artificial hearts, for example. Of course, lots of hurdles in that direction will remain.
    • by Eccles (932)
      Now, if only they can make it draw sugar from human blood and make the device and all its waste products fully biocompatible, they will revolutionize the parts of the medical industry that deal with electrically powered implants.

      Not to mention the weight loss industry. "Burn calories while contributing to Folding@Home!"
    • Now, if only they can make it draw sugar from human blood and make the device and all its waste products fully biocompatible, they will revolutionize the parts of the medical industry that deal with electrically powered implants. Think artificial hearts, for example. Of course, lots of hurdles in that direction will remain.

      Indeed. Building in the vulnerability to direct sunlight, crucifixes/holy symbols, and being staked through the heart might be the only real technical hurdles before we're all under assa

  • Commercial versions could be ready in three to five years, the researchers say
    enough said ...
  • by pesho (843750) on Monday March 26, 2007 @10:14AM (#18488133)
    ...trying to charge their batteries with diet coke.
  • by jense (978975) on Monday March 26, 2007 @10:14AM (#18488135) Homepage
    What happens when after a few years of sugar consumption our notebooks get diabetes? You thought the finger-prick was a pain...
  • Due to the necassary chemical reactions, now everyone will be able to blame their IPOD!!!!

  • Finally, more than an aesthetic reason for Jolt Cola's battery-shaped cans [joltenergy.com]. (They're even Duracell copper-top inspired.)
  • I mean, could you put regular coke in and get diet(low-sugar) coke out?
  • I prefer my electronics to have that aroma that only real maple syrup fuel can provide.
  • My cell phone got into the HoHos again, and now I can't fit that fat MF into my pants pocket.
  • by Radon360 (951529) on Monday March 26, 2007 @10:36AM (#18488421)

    It seems to me that technology functions by putting a chemical (sugar) into the cell, and it produces electricity by breaking down the sugar. It isn't a directly reciprocating process like a lead-acid battery (i.e. you put electrical power back into it and it produces sugar). Its operation would seem to be more akin to that of a fuel cell than a battery, would it not?

  • by lawaetf1 (613291) on Monday March 26, 2007 @10:40AM (#18488455)
    If my laptop reacts to a sugar spike at all like my body does, it'll overclock itself for the morning, the hard drives will ramp up to the next RPM standard and then by afternoon the speed stepping on the CPU will drop to the lowest level, the drive will spin itself down at every possible chance and the screen brightness will be minimal.
  • ...that where possible, taking a lesson from nature and evolution on how to most efficiently accomplish something is a likely best start. It won't always work, but as we get better and better at understanding biology we are likely to keep returning to the methods honed in competition over millions of years.
  • The scientist from the story was last seen driving his DeLorean at 88 miles per hour while an WV beetle minivan driven by alleged Libyan terrorists was chasing him through a parking lot.
  • There is a great deal of sci-fi in which cyborg parts (artificial limbs, sensory organs, even full cyborg bodies) are fueled by extracting energy from sugar and carbohydrates in special cyborg "food" consumed like normal food (usually it tastes pretty awful).

    Obviously, this research hasn't succeeded in providing nearly enough power to fuel most artificial body parts, but I wonder if it's a first step.
  • Or work in the cold? Or be simpler to use than plugging in my charger?

    If not so, why would I even be interested? Fuel cells running alcohol, gasoline, or LPG, sounds like a much better idea.

  • sugar effect it the same way as my 4 year old son? Give him a bunch and runs around a 4x regular speed for an hour, then throws a fit and sugar crashes...

    Can we rethink this?

  • It's about time "jack up" entered the scientific vernacular.

    Idiocracy [youtube.com], here we come.
  • Their thinking: If sugar can jack up the human body, why not electronics?

    Well I for one am really curious to see how they plan on jacking up my body with electronics...

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