Image: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
In the future, maybe you'll still be taking your coffee black, but you might be grabbing sugar to power your phone. Researchers at Virginia Tech have developed a battery that runs on sugar, emits only water, is refillable and biodegradable, and has more energy-storage density than lithium ion batteries.
It’s a big set of claims, but not unprecedented. Other sugar batteries have been developed in the past—in 2007, Sony announced that it had developed a sugar-powered “bio battery” that could power a Walkman. That same year, Saint Louis University researchers demonstrated a calculator running off of a postage-stamp sized sugar battery at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting in Chicago.
But the Virginia Tech researchers, led by Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering, say they’ve developed a battery that uses a synthetic 13-enzyme pathway that strips all charge potentials from sugar to generate electricity in an enzymatic fuel cell. According to US News and World Report, Zhang’s battery appears to be the first sugar battery with sufficient energy to, one day, power tablets and smartphones.
As the researchers observed, carbohydrates are, sort of, nature's own battery. "Sugar is a perfect energy storage compound in nature," Zhang said. "So it's only logical that we try to harness this natural power in an environmentally friendly way to produce a battery."
Even though we all know that batteries are wretched things—born of conflict minerals, and poisonous to the Earth in death—we’re both dependent on them and addicted to throwing them away. The EPA warns that batteries contain heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and nickel, which “can contaminate the environment when batteries are improperly disposed of.” When incinerated, certain metals might be released into the air or can concentrate in the ash produced by the combustion process.
The production, processing, and use of lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles take a toll on the Earth. Researchers found that batteries using cathodes with nickel and cobalt and solvent-based electrode processing are “the highest risks for negative health and environmental impacts,” according to Daily Tech.
Instead of something expensive like platinum for a catalyst, Zhang’s team used low-cost biocatalyst enzymes. Not only could the batteries be cheaper, they could last longer and be biodegradable as well.
Granted, Zhang’s battery runs on maltodextrin, which would likely have to be derived from wheat or corn—the farming of which aren’t exactly environmentally neutral. And even though Zhang estimates his battery could be on the market in as little as three years, that’s what Saint Louis University engineers were estimating for their battery almost seven years ago. Even if one becomes commercially available, it remains to be seen if consumers will want to refill their batteries like they refill their printer cartridges instead of recharging them as is our habit, even if there is an environmental upside.
So while it’s exciting to see progress being made toward replacing the batteries all around us with ones powered by sugar, take that research with a grain of salt.