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Power Technology

Powering Phones, PCs Using Sugar 199

Posted by timothy
from the skynet-will-be-a-hungry-boy dept.
Nerval's Lobster writes "A team of researchers at Virginia Tech University have developed a battery with energy density an order of magnitude higher than lithium-ion batteries, while being almost endlessly rechargeable and biodegradable as well – because it's made of sugar. The battery is an enzymatic biofuel fuel cell – a type of fuel cell that uses a catalyst to strip molecules from molecules of a fuel material. Instead of using platinum or nickel for catalysts, however, biofuel cells use the catalysts made from enzymes similar to those used to break down and digest food in the body. Sugar is a good fuel material because it is energy dense, easy to obtain and transport, and so simple to biodegrade that almost anything biological can eat it. Sugar-based fuel cells aren't new, but existing designs use only a small number of enzymes that don't oxidize the sugar completely, meaning the resulting battery can hold only small amounts of energy that it releases slowly. A new design that uses 13 enzymes that can circulate freely to get better access to sugar molecules, however, is able to store energy at a density of 596 amp-hours per kilogram – an order of magnitude higher than lithium-ion batteries, according to Y.H. Percival Zhang, who studies biological systems engineering at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and College of Engineering at Virginia Tech. "Sugar is a perfect energy storage compound in nature," Zhang said in a statement announcing publication in Nature Communications of his paper describing the battery. "So it's only logical that we try to harness this natural power in an environmentally friendly way to produce a battery.""
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Powering Phones, PCs Using Sugar

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  • sweet! (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 26, 2014 @01:41PM (#46073761)

    Sweet!

  • by Ignacio (1465) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @01:45PM (#46073791)
    Maltodextrin/glucose is a start, but wake me up when it can use sucrose.
  • by transporter_ii (986545) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @01:47PM (#46073809) Homepage

    So the free market will do what New York couldn't with taxes...drive the price of junk food up! Sweet.

  • anp hours (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 26, 2014 @01:48PM (#46073813)

    Watt hours would be more helpful. Amp hours are meaningless without associated volts.

    • by Teun (17872)
      Yet it is the way we express the capacity of batteries...
      • Problem is it's meaningless if you don't know the potential developed from the chemistry.

      • by sjames (1099)

        Only when comparing batteries that operate at the same voltage.

      • by fatphil (181876)
        But *only* when accompanied by the number of volts. The fact that this is suspiciously absent implies that the number of volts is low. The fact that it's described as "energy density" is bad science reporting, as it's a lie.
    • by cryptoengineer2 (3469925) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @02:06PM (#46073973)
      The linked abstract indicates around 0.25 mW/cm^2 (electron exchange membrane area). I'm not in any way a fuel cell expert, but that seems kind of low. Other fuel cells get from 0.2 to 2 Watts (not mW) /cm^2. Sure, sugar has a high energy density, and this project uses it efficiently. But the batteries would be huge, to get reasonable power.
    • 0.8mW/cm^2 / 6mA/cm^2 = 0.1333... volts
  • Corn batteries? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Ecuador (740021) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @01:50PM (#46073831) Homepage

    If this thing takes off, I can imagine in a few years the highly subsidized corn industry trying to sell high concentration fructose batteries, marketing them as "corn sugar fuel cells".

    • If this thing takes off, I can imagine in a few years the highly subsidized corn industry trying to sell high concentration fructose batteries, marketing them as "corn sugar fuel cells".

      Corn syrup is a complex chemical mixture of sugars, including maltose, fructose, and various oligosaccharides. If you dumped it directly into an enzyme battery, you would likely clog up the battery with partially digested sludge.

      • by Trepidity (597)

        Corn syrup is a complex chemical mixture of sugars, including maltose, fructose, and various oligosaccharides.

        That's true, with varying proportions, of just about any natural plant syrup, whether processed from sugar beets, corn, sugar cane, grapes, pears, whatever. If you want a chemically "pure" sugar, such as only fructose, or only glucose, and you don't want other impurities such as colors and such, you need to separate and purify it, which produces what's known as "refined sugar".

      • by Mashdar (876825)

        They'll have to mash the corn with some A/B amylase and limit dextrinase!
        I'll drink to that!

  • by arpad1 (458649) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @01:50PM (#46073843)

    ...the first commercial example. Until then I'll forget about this annoucement since a laboratory curiosity can take a long time to wind its way to commerical production if it ever makes it that far.

    • by Electricity Likes Me (1098643) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @02:21PM (#46074095)

      Never going to happen.

      Stuff like this has been done before - and it always sounds good - but they're burying the lead.

      Enzymes degrade. They're just made of amino acids - they're not long term structures. It's why our bodies cycle and replace them all the time, and its why every single commercial product based on enzymes is single-use only. With time - and we're talking weeks, not years - they fall apart and stop working due to hydrolysis and self-reactions and what not.

      This is why there was a lot of excitement when MIT successfully produced completely solid-state glucose fuel cells. Because a solid-state technology is not enzyme based, and would degrade much, much more slowly (also has other neat properties: like you can implant it).

      The big news in...well just about anything, would be if they'd built a battery with a biological component that could self-regenerate the enzymes it needed to operate. That would make me excited - since we'd finally be talking about something you could actually build a useful and long-term product out of (also creating some hilarious new failure modes - 'sorry, your battery has developed an infection - please bring it to tech support for antibiotic treatment').

      • by drooling-dog (189103) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @02:28PM (#46074149)

        I imagine the enzymes would be recharged whenever the fuel (sugar) is. Not that there aren't other practical issues to deal with, of course...

        • It depends on their system. It's conceivable you could replace the enzyme solution if it was freely circulating, as the article notes, from from looking at the abstract it seems they still depend on a surface-attached enzyme system as well. So that's still functionally like replacing the battery anode and cathode every few weeks as well - so in practice you can't do it at all (since if anything gets into that solution it'll destroy the enzymes very quickly - say, some discarded skin cells).

          This puts you bac

  • by macwhiz (134202) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @01:53PM (#46073877)
    You thought computer viruses were bad, wait until you have to deal with computer diabetes...
    • by Mashdar (876825)
      The Microsoft version will be Livebetes -- It's a feature. Hello world! I've got Livebetes!
  • by Athator (2482228) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @01:53PM (#46073885)
    If the battery is based off enzymatic reactions won't temperature be a massive variable?
  • Maybe we can use High Fructose Corn Syrup for something other than making people obese.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Oh, good. Just what the world needs, more food being used as fuel for machines. That's never had any horrible consequences.

      • The world isn't short of food. The world just lacks a distribution system that makes sure everyone can get it. Free markets can be very powerful things, but providing universal access is one area they fail.

        • by Fwipp (1473271)

          I'd argue that it isn't a failure of our distribution system so much as it is a failure of unchecked capitalism. For example, US consumers' demand for quinoa has pushed the price up so far that the people who used to survive on it (Peruvians, Bolivians) can no longer afford to eat it. http://www.theguardian.com/com... [theguardian.com]

          The rich will always exploit the poor to whatever extent they can get away with. In this case, it means that a small group profits from foreign demand while the laborers suffer. It's the same a

          • by ApplePy (2703131)

            The rich will always exploit the poor to whatever extent they can get away with. In this case, it means that a small group profits from foreign demand while the laborers suffer. It's the same as "blood diamonds" - perfectly normal "free market" foreign demand may send capital to the region, but increases human suffering.

            But you're not accounting for the reduced human suffering on the other end. Perhaps the First World benefits from quinoa, so the suffering balances out.

            Blood diamonds help the situation of

            • by Fwipp (1473271)

              So who says the suffering of American suburbanites is less worthy of hand-wringing than the suffering of little brown people on the other end of the world?

              I do.

              Are you actually arguing that not getting a blowjob is as bad as the estimated 3 million deaths due to "conflict diamond" mining? Like, I know you're trying to joke... but that's what you're saying.

      • by scorp1us (235526)

        The international aid organizations no longer ask for food. They ask for money that can be converted to food. But the shipping com panties hate that because they are no longer paid to ship food.

        Even the Daily Show covered it [thedailyshow.com]

  • Looking forward to when I can stop buying all these temporary phone chargers in convenience stores and just set up an IV!
    And the computer I buy in 2020 will have an artificial circulatory system.

  • by GoodNewsJimDotCom (2244874) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @02:07PM (#46073993)
    First you get the sugar
    Then you get the power
    Then you get the women.
  • by ad454 (325846) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @02:09PM (#46074009)

    This sounds like it would be prefect for implantable devices, that could leach off excess sugar in the blood.

    With the high sugar content in western diets, one could both power implanted devices, plus prevent and treat diabetes by keeping blood sugar levels down to reasonable levels. It could act like an artificial pancreas, plus power a pacemaker, and maybe let you use a computer in your head. (Why isn't the NSA funding this, to stop thought crimes?)

    Seems to me a much easier solution than forcing the political powerful processed food and fast food industries to cut back on sugar and syrup that are poisoning consumers.

  • by Twinbee (767046) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @02:26PM (#46074145) Homepage
    So what are the disadvantages compared to a LIon battery? Does it need much maintenance (such as replacing the sugar)? Can you just plug it into the wall to charge like a normal rechargeable battery? How is the lifespan (cycles) and how quickly does it charge? Is there much vampire drain? How much power can it produce (W/kg)? Is the tech there yet or are there still obstacles to overcome? How cheaply can these be made?
    • by ledow (319597) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @02:35PM (#46074191) Homepage

      How long do the enzymes last? is probably the question at the front of my mind... related to life and charge cycles, sure, but if you don't "feed" it, do they deteriorate?

      The bigger problem, I would think, is how practical is it to handle these? Last thing you want is ants getting into your 500Ah battery and blowing the crap out of it. Do they have to be "cleaned"? Do the enzymes have to be replenished (a nice little sideline for the battery company selling you replacement enzymes - until you fill it with cheap Chinese enzymes and then it stops working)? Does it have to be *cleaned*?

      See, to me, the prevelance of a battery is highly dependent on its maintenance. Sure, we used to have to maintain lead-acids, but nowadays they are throw-and-replace or sealed anyway. All household batteries are maintenance-free, even the rechargeable. All coin batteries. All large batteries for UPS, car starters, solar systems, alarms, etc.

      Hell, even "electric" cars have a maintenance-free battery that you have to swap out because the maintenance is ridiculous.

      Honestly, I'd rather have a battery I can "recharge" with sugar that only does 5Ah instead of 500 and doesn't require any other maintenance (i.e. a fuel cell). But, ideally, I'd rather just have a battery that I don't ever have to do anything with but plug it in and then, years later, throw it away.

      You can say that we have to be environmental etc. but lead-acid batteries can recycle extremely well. Until this gets close, it's not even worth an article.

      And, sorry, but every battery technology that was ever succesful, I had never heard of it until I was holding one in my hand that came with a product (Ni-Cd, NiMH, Li-Ion, etc.). All the thousands of "new" batteries that make the news? I've yet to see a single one hit the stores in even the most limited fashion. As such, I ignore all battery technology until it's available for me to buy, preferably in 12V or AA versions.

    • So what are the disadvantages compared to a LIon battery? Does it need much maintenance (such as replacing the sugar)? Can you just plug it into the wall to charge like a normal rechargeable battery? How is the lifespan (cycles) and how quickly does it charge? ...

      This is a fuel cell, not a secondary battery. You recharge it by putting more fuel (in this case, sugar) in. Of course it has better energy density than secondary batteries (as a rule, fuel cells do), but it's mostly not very applicable to the same uses.

      Comparing it to Li-ion (as in TFS, and I presume TFA) rather than to existing fuel-cell technology is not only not useful, but harmful, as it causes people to get the entirely wrong impression about it, as evidenced by the questions you ask. But that's tech

    • by Muad'Dave (255648)

      Lions are far too dangerous and getting their daily allotment of raw meat is expensive and can be problematical. Sugar, on the other hand, is what little girls are made of, therefore much more pleasant to work with, although it can be moody and can turn on you. At least little girls (and sugar) don't have claws.

  • It's not a battery. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Areyoukiddingme (1289470) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @02:29PM (#46074159)

    It's not a battery. It's a fuel cell. The reaction is not internally reversible. Once all the accessible sugar has been oxidized, you need new sugar to refuel it. It doesn't recharge. Most likely you wouldn't bother to refuel it at all. You'd treat it as a disposable that you simply replace, like an alkaline cell. The quoted 596 Ah/kg compares very favorably to the 92 Ah/kg of an alkaline. Of course, that's comparing a theoretical charge density calculated from lab equipment to a product. By the time you squeeze the lab equipment into the AA or AAA form factor, you can expect that quoted 596 to suffer rather badly.

    • From the article:

      The sugar battery is rechargeable, but also refillable.

      Where did you get the idea it isn't rechargeable?

      • Where did you get the idea it isn't rechargeable?

        Chemistry. Many enzymatic reactions are not reversible at all. For those that are reversible, the reaction is not reversible simply by applying a charge. It's an equilibrium reaction, so concentrations of the reactants are what's important. The article is paywalled, so I haven't seen the exact sequence of 13 reactions, but let's quote again from The Fine Article:

        The primary byproducts of the process are water and electricity. “We are releasing all electron charges stored in the sugar solution slowly step-by-step by using an enzyme cascade,” Zhang said.

        That is not reversible. Some number of the 13 steps may or may not be, but some of them definitely are not. If you dismantle a sugar molecule

    • The reaction is not internally reversible. Once all the accessible sugar has been oxidized, you need new sugar to refuel it. It doesn't recharge.

      Where do you get that?

      Though the detaied description of the reaction in The Fine Summary of the paper is in terms of the maltodextrin + oxygen -> water + carbon dioxide direction, there's no inherent reason that it can't be run backward with a power input, and the descriptive article speaks as if it can.

      I've checked one part: The two enzymes at the start - whic

      • I saw no mention of the usual platinum catalyst, and the summary specifically disclaims the use of such in this method. Of course we all know how trustworthy TFS usually is, but I saw no mention of it in the abstract, either.

        In any case, assuming the process is reversible, I suspect trying to run this sequence in reverse by applying power is even more inefficient than the well-known inefficiency of photosynthesis.

        Hopefully some organic chemist with an institutional subscription to Nature Communications wil

        • I saw no mention of the usual platinum catalyst, and the summary specifically disclaims the use of such in this method.

          Look at the right edge of the diagram [nature.com]. You'll see an oval labeled Pt on the surface of the cathode, serving as the site of a reaction where hydrogen leaving the cell is reacted with atmospheric oxygen to form atmospheric water vapor - achieving the necessary hydrogen gradient to pump the electricity generation. (Alternatively, with the charging current pumping protons IN, the same catalys

  • If its so great, why arent we using it right now. Given the non-renewable nature of metal batteries, this is sort of a godsend. I was reading one article about the sugar batteries and the developer of the batteries said "Well it won't hold its charge for the duration of shipping so people won't want it". This is the dumbest comment I have ever heard as most people would be fine with charging the batteries at initial use and most cell phones, people are already used to charging every few days anyway so this

    • by DMUTPeregrine (612791) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @03:37PM (#46074565) Journal
      This is a fuel cell, not a battery. It can't be recharged without refueling it. The enzymes are probably what breaks down, so you'd need to put more in. Since they break down rapidly (as most enzymes do) that means making them locally. You can't just plug these into the wall to recharge them, you have to empty and refuel them.
  • by sirwired (27582) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @02:50PM (#46074295)

    I remember reading stories about fuel cells for laptops (powered by alcohol) during the first year of Slashdot. And, supposedly, such cells were going to be sold for popular laptop models in "a few months." Twenty or so years later, I'm still waiting.

    If a fuel cell idea is still completely, and totally, lab-bound, it is unlikely to become a product in the next 15-20 years or so, if previous progress on the subject is any guide.

  • A team of researchers at Virginia Tech University have developed a battery with energy density an order of magnitude higher than lithium-ion batteries

    Bloody scientists. Why can't they just say "about ten times"?

  • All we want to know is, how long does a five pound bag of sugar last?

    (corollary question, will McDonald's et al stop putting those little sugar packs out for anyone to take?)

  • Vapor (Score:4, Insightful)

    by spasm (79260) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @04:30PM (#46074957) Homepage

    If anyone ever develops an energy source powered by vaporous product claims, we'll be good forever.

  • by msobkow (48369)

    Then we can resurrect that sound fragment from an old video game I used to play (I forget the name), which would periodically threaten "I Hunger..."

    I can see far more entertainment value in people's phones moaning "I Hunger" from their pockets instead of displaying a low-battery indicator. :D

  • That's great news for the sugarmotor!

  • Any attempt to use food as power resource is doomed to failure.

    See the example in Brazil, we extensively use ethanol from sugar cane to fuel cars, more than 95% of cars produced in Brazil can use any mixture of ethanol and gasoline.

    Since Brazil also uses sugar cane to produce sugar, and the global demand for food is increasing. Most producers of sugar cane prefer to sell their production to sugar mills, instead of to ethanol plants, raising substantially the ethanol price at a rate that it's not economi

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