Researchers develop high-capacity sugar-based batteries

US university techies come up with a biodegradable battery cell that can run on sugar, lasts four times longer than a lithium-ion battery on a single charge.

The quest for safe, high-capacity batteries that don't harm mother Earth has taken a curious step forward after US academics developed a battery cell that can run on sugar.

The sugar-based battery lasts up to four times longer on a single charge than a conventional lithium-ion cell, and is biodegradable.

The researchers, at Saint Louis University in Missouri, presented their findings at the 233rd national meeting of the American Chemical Society. They claim the new fuel cell can operate using almost any sugar source.

'This study shows that renewable fuels can be directly employed in batteries at room temperature to lead to more energy-efficient battery technology than metal-based approaches,' said study leader Shelley Minteer, an electrochemist at Saint Louis University. 'It demonstrates that by bridging biology and chemistry, we can build a better battery that's also cleaner for the environment.'

Minteer's battery cell contains enzymes which convert sugars into electricity, leaving behind a harmless by-product: water. Successful tests were carried out using a range of fuel sources, including glucose, flat fizzy drinks, sweetened drink mixes and tree and cacti sap. Carbonated drinks appeared to be too inefficient for use. Table sugar itself was found to be the best fuel source

A stamp-sized prototype was demonstrated running a calculator, and although other projects also lay claim to sugar fuel cell advances, Minteer says her version is the most powerful and long lasting. Of course, the most efficient conversion is within living organisms.

The study refers to the work of Derek Lovely at the University of Massachusetts, but claims that the sugar fuel cell technology being worked on there currently only offers a fifth of the battery life of conventional batteries.

Commercial production of sugar batteries based on Minteer's prototype could occur in the next three to five years claims the team, depending on the success of further tests.

The US Department of Defence is funding further work on developing versions that can withstand extremes of temperature. The team will also work on extending the lifespan of the enzymes used and increasing overall performance of the cell.

It is interested in using the fuel cell in military hardware because of the ready availability of fuel sources. This means that equipment will still function even in areas where there is scant availability of electricity.

For consumers, the most likely home for the cells will be in mobile devices such as phones and music players. It will particularly benefit the environment in helping to reduce the toxic waste of these products, which are often replaced with new models annually.

However, the technology may well also find a place in computers, sensors and other technology.

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