Existing batteries are not known for their environmentally friendly components, since most contain heavily toxic chemicals. The much used lithium-ion batteries, best known for their use in cell phones and electric cars, for instance can contain pollutants that may decrease fertility.
Luckily a new find in Science Express shows that brown algae can help us make those batteries not only a bit greener and safer but also cheaper and more efficient.
The involved researchers from Clemson University and the Georgia Institute of Technology were looking for ways to improve binder materials in batteries. A binder functions as a suspension in which silicon or graphite particles float around so that they can interact with the electrolyte that provides battery power.
With a little help from nature
Instead of trying to make the new material in a lab, the scientists looked to Mother Nature. And what better place to look for organisms that manage high concentrations of ions on a daily basis than in the ocean, since the ocean’s salt water is in a sense comparable to the electrolyte in a battery.
What they found was the brown algae, one of the fastest growing plants on the planet. These algae produce alginates, which are sugars that they use to produce strong stalks up to 60 metres long. And precisely these sugars showed to have the properties needed to produce a vastly improved binder.
The algae produce alginate in abundance, and can be extracted through a simple soda-based process, which makes the material much cheaper to produce than current binder materials. On top of that it is a completely safe material that is in fact already used in pharmaceutical products, foods and paper to name but a few.
But what the researchers primarily set out to achieve, an improved binder material, has clearly been realised as well. Alginate as a binder can increase battery capacity to as much as eight times that of current Lithium-ion batteries, with a practically unending possibility to recharge.
So while we wait for the production of drastically improved batteries, more easily implementable solutions such as these will just do the trick to better our energy handling capabilities, making it a bit greener and more efficient.
© Jorn van Dooren | www.bitsofscience.org