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Published on September 11th, 2009 | by Nick Chambers

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Algae-Based, Non-Metallic Batteries Could Revolutionize Energy Storage Industry

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A group of researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden have discovered that a particular type of algae — with a bad reputation for causing damaging algal blooms in oceans throughout the world — produces a substance that can be used to make inexpensive, non-toxic, simple-to-build, flexible, thin and durable batteries that, after optimization, are expected to perform on par with today’s most advanced lithium-ion batteries.

The key to the discovery lies in the way in which the algae, Cladophora, produce a unique type of cellulose with a very large surface area (approximately 80 square meters of surface area per gram of material).

By coating this algal cellulose material with a thin layer of a well-known, conductive polymer, called polypyrrole (PPy), the team has “succeeded in producing a battery that weighs almost nothing and that has set new charge-time and capacity records for polymer-cellulose-based [non-metallic] batteries,” according to Gustav Nyström, a doctoral student in nanotechnology and one of the main researchers.

The battery they created during the course of their experiment was completely unoptimized, yet even so they managed to obtain storage capacities of approximately 25 Wh/kilogram of battery material by weight, or 40 Wh/Liter of battery material by volume. To get an idea of what that means, lithium-ion batteries (which have been being optimized for a long time now) have a range of 100-160 Wh/kg or 250-360 Wh/Liter. After optimization, the research team expects the PPy-Cellulose batteries to have roughly the same energy storage characteristics as lithium-ion.

Up until now, no one has been able to make an organic-based battery perform anywhere close to what you expect from the best lithium-ion inorganic batteries. What’s the big deal with having an organic-based battery you ask? From ease of manufacture, to the low degree of toxicity, to the flexible nature of the material, organic-based batteries have several key advantages over inorganic ones such as lithium-ion.

According to an email from Professor Maria Strömme, one of Gustav Nyström’s advisors and another author on the paper, the battery would be very easy and cheap to make because it “mainly consists of paper and salt water and can theoretically be made in your own kitchen (if you have a strong mixer) without the major energy input needed to create today’s batteries.” In a separate email, Mr. Nyström also added that the manufacture of the battery is “based on an easy, all-chemical batch wise fabrication process using inexpensive and abundant materials.”

Although the battery can be made with ease and is quite non-toxic, it has some impressive characteristics relating to charge times and durability. Again, keeping in mind that their experimental battery was completely unoptimized, it already shows an impressive ability to be quickly charged and discharged at high Amperages over and over without losing much of its storage capacity.

The research team is not focusing directly on car applications as of yet, choosing instead to direct their energies on taking advantage of the battery’s unique properties of flexibility and low toxicity.

“We anticipate that the new batteries may open up entirely new possibilities when it comes to battery applications,” said Professor Strömme in an email. “Because of the potential cost efficiency and light weight, the batteries can be used in smart textiles (clothes, e.g. for sensors that monitors pollutants or UV irradiation or alternatively monitors our sweat for diagnostic purposes) in packaging, in diagnostic devices in developing countries, etc.. Another benefit is that the batteries can be manufactured without advanced equipment making it possible to build the batteries on site in developing countries.”

However, because the batteries are expected to perform on par with lithium-ion, and may potentially be much cheaper and less-toxic, there is no reason that they couldn’t outright replace lithium-ion as the battery of choice for all applications, including electric and extended-range vehicles.

Sources: EurekAlert, personal communication with authors, Journal article published in Nano Letters (DOI: 10.1021/nl901852h)

Image Credit: Adapted from Nano Letters journal article



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About the Author

Not your traditional car guy.



  • MB

    Could you explain why a tenth the capacity compared to Lithium-Ion is so exciting? What reason do they have to believe it will be so much better when “optimized”?

  • MB

    Could you explain why a tenth the capacity compared to Lithium-Ion is so exciting? What reason do they have to believe it will be so much better when “optimized”?

  • MB

    Could you explain why a tenth the capacity compared to Lithium-Ion is so exciting? What reason do they have to believe it will be so much better when “optimized”?

  • MB

    Could you explain why a tenth the capacity compared to Lithium-Ion is so exciting? What reason do they have to believe it will be so much better when “optimized”?

  • Nick Chambers

    MB,

    Charge capacity is really only one part of the story here, but in answer to your question: Since when is 25/100-160 equal to 1/10? The numbers I was provided and posted above clearly show that it’s more like 1/4-1/6 the capacity of li-ion in its unoptimized state.

    In order to get at what the differences between an unoptimized experimental battery and an optimized commercial battery are, all I can really do is cite their paper:

    “On the basis of the results from the TGA measurements and the CHN analysis, showing that about two thirds of the composite consists of PPy, we obtain charge capacities between approximately 38 and 50 mAh per gram when only considering the electroactive material. These values may be compared with the capacity of a Li+ battery composed of a lithiated graphite (LiC6) anode and a LiCoO2 cathode of approximately 140 mAh g-1 (ref 29) as well as that of 110 mAh per gram reported by Pushparaj et al.30 for a hybrid Li+ ion/carbon nanotube-impregnated paper battery. Since the present system has not yet been fully optimized, it is reasonable to assume that this all polymer-based system may be competitive even when comparing with Li+ ion systems particularly as the present type of batteries can be used in a very wide range of applications for which Li-ion batteries clearly not will be applicable.”

    However, like I said, the charge capacity is really only part of the story here. The major discovery is that a completely organic battery has been shown to have a storage capacity that is likely in the same realm as Li-ion, but can be made from readily available materials that don’t need to be mined, is far cheaper to produce, can be charged extremely quickly with little degradation, is flexible enough it could be worn in clothing or embedded in books, can be made in your “backyard,” and has very low toxicity (it’s mostly made of salt water).

  • Constantin

    YES THAT IS THE WAY TO GO! ELECTRIC RULES !

  • Constantin

    YES THAT IS THE WAY TO GO! ELECTRIC RULES !

  • htl

    I need more universities to check their results before I comment but this is exactly where we should be spending our research money. organic nontoxic and any company can easily manufacture it without polluting. If this pans out then I’ll hug the next Swedish person i see!

  • htl

    I need more universities to check their results before I comment but this is exactly where we should be spending our research money. organic nontoxic and any company can easily manufacture it without polluting. If this pans out then I’ll hug the next Swedish person i see!

  • htl

    I need more universities to check their results before I comment but this is exactly where we should be spending our research money. organic nontoxic and any company can easily manufacture it without polluting. If this pans out then I’ll hug the next Swedish person i see!

  • htl

    I need more universities to check their results before I comment but this is exactly where we should be spending our research money. organic nontoxic and any company can easily manufacture it without polluting. If this pans out then I’ll hug the next Swedish person i see!

  • MikeyBoy

    A lot of investment has taken place in Lithium mining and production, I wonder what impact this will have on the market place. What conditions besides the natural ocean environment are needed to mass produce this algae? Whichever countries/organizations get the mass production running first will have an advantage.

  • MikeyBoy

    A lot of investment has taken place in Lithium mining and production, I wonder what impact this will have on the market place. What conditions besides the natural ocean environment are needed to mass produce this algae? Whichever countries/organizations get the mass production running first will have an advantage.

  • Bob Jenson

    This seems like something that falls under “Too good to be true”. And the perplexing math seems to make me doubt it more. Hopefully this is true and we get something nice out of this.

  • Bob Jenson

    This seems like something that falls under “Too good to be true”. And the perplexing math seems to make me doubt it more. Hopefully this is true and we get something nice out of this.

  • Bob Jenson

    This seems like something that falls under “Too good to be true”. And the perplexing math seems to make me doubt it more. Hopefully this is true and we get something nice out of this.

  • wizz

    Sweet. This seems like a good replacement for Li-poly’s in RC applications.

  • wizz

    Sweet. This seems like a good replacement for Li-poly’s in RC applications.

  • http://www.Muwasalat.com Muwasalat.com

    exciting stuff. but really would like to see these batteries in the market. and then only it will be really exciting.

    go switzerland – with all the banks of importance their. they have made something useful afterall. or rather discovered.

  • http://www.Muwasalat.com Muwasalat.com

    exciting stuff. but really would like to see these batteries in the market. and then only it will be really exciting.

    go switzerland – with all the banks of importance their. they have made something useful afterall. or rather discovered.

  • http://www.Muwasalat.com Muwasalat.com

    exciting stuff. but really would like to see these batteries in the market. and then only it will be really exciting.

    go switzerland – with all the banks of importance their. they have made something useful afterall. or rather discovered.

  • http://www.Muwasalat.com Muwasalat.com

    exciting stuff. but really would like to see these batteries in the market. and then only it will be really exciting.

    go switzerland – with all the banks of importance their. they have made something useful afterall. or rather discovered.

  • EARL LARSEN

    I find this one of the most exciting discoverys of all time. I want on the list as first in line to buy some stock in this company. Hoping one of the stock brokers will contact me very soon.

  • EARL LARSEN

    I find this one of the most exciting discoverys of all time. I want on the list as first in line to buy some stock in this company. Hoping one of the stock brokers will contact me very soon.

  • notbraveheart

    Could some functionality comparisons be drawn between these findings and the “algae-as-fuel” developements?

  • notbraveheart

    Could some functionality comparisons be drawn between these findings and the “algae-as-fuel” developements?

  • SecondGrader

    SwedenSwitzerland. No surprise that these innovations are occuring outside of the US these days. Pity the poor US educational system.

  • SecondGrader

    SwedenSwitzerland. No surprise that these innovations are occuring outside of the US these days. Pity the poor US educational system.

  • SecondGrader

    SwedenSwitzerland. No surprise that these innovations are occuring outside of the US these days. Pity the poor US educational system.

  • Jim Girouard

    This research is very encouraging. Is the algae battery sensitive to heat?

  • Jim Girouard

    This research is very encouraging. Is the algae battery sensitive to heat?

  • Jim Girouard

    This research is very encouraging. Is the algae battery sensitive to heat?

  • Blogmeire

    Hey Joke 2.0:

    Why don’t you point out that “discoveries” like this are 20+ years away (if ever) from mass production?

    Why don’t you point out that rechargeable batteries have a life of about 1000 charge cycles, and using them in a car would burn them out in just 2-3 years of typical use?

    Answer, because Joke 2.0 is for children, written by idiots.

  • Blogmeire

    Hey Joke 2.0:

    Why don’t you point out that “discoveries” like this are 20+ years away (if ever) from mass production?

    Why don’t you point out that rechargeable batteries have a life of about 1000 charge cycles, and using them in a car would burn them out in just 2-3 years of typical use?

    Answer, because Joke 2.0 is for children, written by idiots.

  • http://junction.brynmawr.edu/display/danalger gametheoryman

    One application that would have a huge impact is in clothing that heats the user to the optimal temperature. Now you wouldn’t have to heat every cubic meter inside of each building (at least nowhere near the same temperature), but just the people inside of it.

  • http://junction.brynmawr.edu/display/danalger gametheoryman

    One application that would have a huge impact is in clothing that heats the user to the optimal temperature. Now you wouldn’t have to heat every cubic meter inside of each building (at least nowhere near the same temperature), but just the people inside of it.

  • http://junction.brynmawr.edu/display/danalger gametheoryman

    One application that would have a huge impact is in clothing that heats the user to the optimal temperature. Now you wouldn’t have to heat every cubic meter inside of each building (at least nowhere near the same temperature), but just the people inside of it.

  • http://junction.brynmawr.edu/display/danalger gametheoryman

    One application that would have a huge impact is in clothing that heats the user to the optimal temperature. Now you wouldn’t have to heat every cubic meter inside of each building (at least nowhere near the same temperature), but just the people inside of it.

  • kiwikid

    Name a piece of *new* tech that you use that didn’t take decades to make it to being common place?

    Or that didn’t have reliability problems?

    And if this type of battery can be grown, and market pressures (multiple manufacturers) keep it reasonably priced, you’ll be just as happy replacing packs of these as you are now when you go and get fuel, or more throw-away one time use batteries. And some of us will be happier- same convenience, yet more sustainable.

  • kiwikid

    Name a piece of *new* tech that you use that didn’t take decades to make it to being common place?

    Or that didn’t have reliability problems?

    And if this type of battery can be grown, and market pressures (multiple manufacturers) keep it reasonably priced, you’ll be just as happy replacing packs of these as you are now when you go and get fuel, or more throw-away one time use batteries. And some of us will be happier- same convenience, yet more sustainable.

  • http://www.non-scalable.com NonScalable

    Great development!

    I have to agree; that we need some confirmation on the numbers Uppsala have, but all-in-all this one looks very promising. Just a consideration for the detractors, if you have a battery made of paper and saltwater (even if it can’t be optimized greater than the 25% of Li-ion density) doesn’t the switch from a mining/extractive tech. to sustainable/regenerative tech. vastly improve our ecological position?

    Put another way, so long as this technology is cleaner than wood for storing solar energy in chemical bonds it is a better solution than burning any fossil fuel, or mining (transporting, processing, recycling, disposing of) Lithium.

  • http://www.non-scalable.com NonScalable

    Great development!

    I have to agree; that we need some confirmation on the numbers Uppsala have, but all-in-all this one looks very promising. Just a consideration for the detractors, if you have a battery made of paper and saltwater (even if it can’t be optimized greater than the 25% of Li-ion density) doesn’t the switch from a mining/extractive tech. to sustainable/regenerative tech. vastly improve our ecological position?

    Put another way, so long as this technology is cleaner than wood for storing solar energy in chemical bonds it is a better solution than burning any fossil fuel, or mining (transporting, processing, recycling, disposing of) Lithium.

  • http://www.non-scalable.com NonScalable

    Great development!

    I have to agree; that we need some confirmation on the numbers Uppsala have, but all-in-all this one looks very promising. Just a consideration for the detractors, if you have a battery made of paper and saltwater (even if it can’t be optimized greater than the 25% of Li-ion density) doesn’t the switch from a mining/extractive tech. to sustainable/regenerative tech. vastly improve our ecological position?

    Put another way, so long as this technology is cleaner than wood for storing solar energy in chemical bonds it is a better solution than burning any fossil fuel, or mining (transporting, processing, recycling, disposing of) Lithium.

  • Aureon Kwolek

    Practicallity is more important than Cleaner. Compare two different uses: one on land and the other on a moving vehicle:

    At 25% energy density, on land, space and weight are not so critical, so it’s more practical. In contrast, on a moving vehicle, space and weight are critical. If the batteries weigh more or take up too much space on the moving vehicle, it won’t be practical. That is, until some future date, when the power density gets closer and closer to li-ion. Still this could be a winner. We’ll see how this plays out.

    There are other factors influencing future vehicles, such as reduced weigh, solarvoltaic bodies, ultra-high efficiency motors, advanced PWM battery charging methods, smaller 80% efficient fuel cells for the range extender, advanced onboard water-splitting technology to name a few. These might reduce the amount of power we need today to run the vehicle – to a much lower power requirement. And that would make lower density batteries more practical too, especially if they were cheaper, or if there was a shortage or price surge of lithium.

    The next big push would be to make these more efficient – to increase the enrgy density. The early computers filled up a whole room and were slower than your laptop. Researchers didn’t give up just because they were inefficient. They found a way.

  • Aureon Kwolek

    Practicallity is more important than Cleaner. Compare two different uses: one on land and the other on a moving vehicle:

    At 25% energy density, on land, space and weight are not so critical, so it’s more practical. In contrast, on a moving vehicle, space and weight are critical. If the batteries weigh more or take up too much space on the moving vehicle, it won’t be practical. That is, until some future date, when the power density gets closer and closer to li-ion. Still this could be a winner. We’ll see how this plays out.

    There are other factors influencing future vehicles, such as reduced weigh, solarvoltaic bodies, ultra-high efficiency motors, advanced PWM battery charging methods, smaller 80% efficient fuel cells for the range extender, advanced onboard water-splitting technology to name a few. These might reduce the amount of power we need today to run the vehicle – to a much lower power requirement. And that would make lower density batteries more practical too, especially if they were cheaper, or if there was a shortage or price surge of lithium.

    The next big push would be to make these more efficient – to increase the enrgy density. The early computers filled up a whole room and were slower than your laptop. Researchers didn’t give up just because they were inefficient. They found a way.

  • HexHammer

    Since when did it say this was green and safe? The batteries may be, but the production pre-process isnt.

    Polypyrrole, which is what the algae is coated with to make it conductive leaves some nasty byproducts to make in bulk, although smaller scale yeilds have been obtained with Hydrogen Peroxide, which isnt environmentally dangerous. It is pretty intensive as a process though, so its expensive.

    We all know how industry reacts to that: use the cheap way and let the grandchildren clean up the mess while we enjoy the sunset.

    Great idea, lets just hope its used responsibly for once, eh?

  • HexHammer

    Since when did it say this was green and safe? The batteries may be, but the production pre-process isnt.

    Polypyrrole, which is what the algae is coated with to make it conductive leaves some nasty byproducts to make in bulk, although smaller scale yeilds have been obtained with Hydrogen Peroxide, which isnt environmentally dangerous. It is pretty intensive as a process though, so its expensive.

    We all know how industry reacts to that: use the cheap way and let the grandchildren clean up the mess while we enjoy the sunset.

    Great idea, lets just hope its used responsibly for once, eh?

  • HexHammer

    Since when did it say this was green and safe? The batteries may be, but the production pre-process isnt.

    Polypyrrole, which is what the algae is coated with to make it conductive leaves some nasty byproducts to make in bulk, although smaller scale yeilds have been obtained with Hydrogen Peroxide, which isnt environmentally dangerous. It is pretty intensive as a process though, so its expensive.

    We all know how industry reacts to that: use the cheap way and let the grandchildren clean up the mess while we enjoy the sunset.

    Great idea, lets just hope its used responsibly for once, eh?

  • HexHammer

    Since when did it say this was green and safe? The batteries may be, but the production pre-process isnt.

    Polypyrrole, which is what the algae is coated with to make it conductive leaves some nasty byproducts to make in bulk, although smaller scale yeilds have been obtained with Hydrogen Peroxide, which isnt environmentally dangerous. It is pretty intensive as a process though, so its expensive.

    We all know how industry reacts to that: use the cheap way and let the grandchildren clean up the mess while we enjoy the sunset.

    Great idea, lets just hope its used responsibly for once, eh?

  • http://gas2.0 william mcgowan

    you know whats cool. as we as humans,re learn what we as human race knew long ago.

    we get to watch the show a new.this time organic power cells. and that is cool.

    yeap cool.

    william mc gowan.

    thank you.

  • micheal

    may i know what type of cladophora is been using for this application? is it cladopora catenata, stimpsonii,ceolothrix, sericea, vagabunda or prolifera..

  • micheal

    may i know what type of cladophora is been using for this application? is it cladopora catenata, stimpsonii,ceolothrix, sericea, vagabunda or prolifera..

  • micheal

    may i know what type of cladophora is been using for this application? is it cladopora catenata, stimpsonii,ceolothrix, sericea, vagabunda or prolifera..

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