Batteries That Run On Sugar Could Be In Gadgets In Just 3 Years

By Josh Lieberman on January 21, 2014 4:22 PM EST

Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
A sugar battery developed at Virginia Tech could be in gadgets in as little as three years. The sugar battery's charge lasts ten times as long as a lithium-ion battery's. (Photo: Virginia Tech)

Researchers at Virginia Tech have created a biodegradable battery that runs on sugar, a development which could one day offset the billions of batteries that find their way to landfills every year. In a study published today in Nature Communications, Y.H. Percival Zhang, a Virginia Tech associate professor of biological systems engineering, says that although sugar batteries have been developed before, his new biobattery has an energy density that is far greater than previous efforts (the greater the energy density, the longer a battery can go before needing a charge).

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"Sugar is a perfect energy storage compound in nature," said Zhang. "So it's only logical that we try to harness this natural power in an environmentally friendly way to produce a battery." Zhang said that the battery could be used in cell phones, tablets and other rechargeable electronic devices in as little as three years.  

In Zhang's battery, sugar passes through a synthetic enzymatic pathway, which strips the sugar of all of its charge while generating electricity. Inexpensive, biodegradable biocatalyst enzymes are used in place of the platinum of a regular battery, lowering the cost, and unlike fuel cells powered by hydrogen or methanol, the sugar battery is neither explosive nor flammable. The biodegradable battery can be refilled with sugar, similar to how a printer cartridge can be refilled with ink. (It isn't clear how you you'd refill a battery with sugar when it's in your cellphone.)

The website Extreme Tech has examined the numbers in the sugar battery study, and found that (prepare for some technical terms) the battery produces "nearly 24 electrons from a single glucose unit. This equates to a power output of 0.8 mW/cm, current density of 6 mA/cm, and energy storage density of 596 Ah/kg." That's probably more information than you wanted to know (unless you're really into batteries), but what it means is that the sugar battery can go much, much longer between charges than current batteries; the sugar battery has "roughly 10 times the energy density of the lithium-ion batteries in your mobile devices." (Imagine your iPhone's battery lasting ten times as long between charges--that'd be pretty nice, right?)

In addition to their use in gadgets, biobatteries will probably one day be implanted in of our bodies as well. In 2012, MIT engineers developed a silicon fuel cell that runs on glucose and could potentially be used in brain implants to help patients move paralyzed limbs. "It will be a few more years into the future before you see people with spinal-cord injuries receive such implantable systems in the context of standard medical care, but those are the sorts of devices you could envision powering from a glucose-based fuel cell," said an author of the study.

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