As our world becomes increasingly electrified, the demand for batteries is soaring. However, the environmental cost of mining lithium and other minerals essential for traditional batteries is a growing concern. Enter the realm of alternative materials, where sustainability meets innovation.
Imagine a world where your local ATM continues to operate during a power outage, all thanks to burnt cotton. This isn’t a distant dream; it’s a reality on a street in India, showcasing the ingenious backup battery developed by PJP Eye, a Japanese firm. But how does burnt cotton power a battery? The details are intriguingly secretive, with the process involving high temperatures above 3,000C to transform cotton into carbon for the battery’s anode. This method not only breathes new life into waste cotton from the textile industry but also presents a more sustainable pathway compared to traditional graphite anodes.
The rise of electric vehicles and large energy storage systems is driving the need for sustainable and efficient batteries. The anatomy of a battery is simple yet crucial: two electrodes – the cathode and the anode – flank an electrolyte. The flow of ions through this setup is what powers our devices. Traditional lithium mining, necessary for these batteries, is a thirsty and energy-intensive process, often leaving indelible scars on the environment.
As we peer into the environmental footprint of battery materials, from mining to transportation, the need for alternatives becomes stark. Cobalt, another staple of lithium-ion batteries, is fraught with concerns about unsafe working conditions, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where much of it is mined.
Nature, however, offers a treasure trove of alternatives. From seawater to biowaste and natural pigments, we are surrounded by untapped potential for battery materials. The challenge lies in proving these natural resources can compete with the efficiency and convenience of current market offerings.
PJP Eye doesn’t just stop at sustainable materials; they’re pushing the envelope in battery performance. Their carbon anode boasts a larger surface area than graphite, enabling a much quicker charge—up to ten times faster than current lithium-ion batteries. With a cathode made from a base metal oxide, they’re venturing into less reactive territories than the alkaline metals like lithium. There’s even talk of a dual carbon electrode battery, entirely plant-based, on the horizon for 2025.
The implications of such technology are vast, especially for electric vehicles where charging time is critical. Goccia, a Chinese firm in partnership with Hitachi, is already integrating this rapid-charging battery into an e-bike set to hit the Japanese market in early 2023.
Moreover, companies like Stora Enso in Finland are harnessing carbon from lignin, a natural polymer in trees, for battery anodes. There’s also research into using cotton not just for anodes but as a solid-state electrolyte, potentially leading to more stable batteries than we currently have.
Our oceans, too, are a practically limitless reservoir of battery materials. The future is clear: as we transition to a more electrified society, the batteries that power our lives must not only be efficient but also environmentally conscious. The burnt cotton powering an ATM today might just be the precursor to a revolution in the battery industry, where the materials of tomorrow are all around us, waiting to be harnessed.
Original Article: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20231108-batteries-of-the-future-how-cotton-and-seawater-might-power-our-devices
Photo by Gudella from Getty Images