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Power Technology

Powering Phones, PCs Using Sugar 199

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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  • by ad454 ( 325846 ) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @02:09PM (#46074009) Journal

    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 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 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.

  • 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.

  • by noh8rz10 ( 2716597 ) on Sunday January 26, 2014 @02:53PM (#46074305)

    The voltage is immaterial. The energy density stage same regardless of the voltage, since amp-hours s au it of charge, indent of how much current or voltage is actually used. If you hold voltage and current constant, you can always do more work with more charge, so charge/kg is a reasonable representation of energy density.

    You're talking about comparing across battery types, then your statement holds only when voltage is the same. Also, for EVs the only metric that really matters is energy per volume. kWh-hrs (or MJ) per liter, eg. Energy per mass isn't a constraint. Show me a significant boost in this metric, including the size of the "sugar sack" needed to go 120 miles, then we'll talk.

"In matrimony, to hesitate is sometimes to be saved." -- Butler