A new breakthrough at Virginia Tech could be the beginning of a new type of commercial battery production. Granted, tech companies make these claims on a regular basis -- but this one may be worth paying attention to in the long term. According to EurekaAlert, a research team led by Y.H. Percival Zhang has created a high-density battery capable of running on sugar instead of relying on platinum as a catalyst.
Why Sugar Could Work
Sugar, or glucose, is a remarkably good source of energy. It stores far more energy than a comparable lithium-ion
battery. Its energy density is on par with ethanol (think biofuel made with corn), and while it doesn't contain nearly as much specific energy as ethanol (or as much energy by weight), it's still far above where we stand today. Glucose is also generally abundant
and doesn't rely on secured sources of rare metals.
The key to a sugar battery is having an efficient method of releasing the energy stored in the sugar. Zhang's group claims to have made breakthroughs on this front, but the details are vague:
In this newest development, Zhang and his colleagues constructed a non-natural synthetic enzymatic pathway that strip all charge potentials from the sugar to generate electricity in an enzymatic fuel cell. Then, low-cost biocatalyst enzymes are used as catalyst instead of costly platinum, which is typically used in conventional batteries.
Like all fuel cells, the sugar battery combines fuel - in this case, maltodextrin, a polysaccharide made from partial hydrolysis of starch - with air to generate electricity and water as the main byproducts.
Unlike conventional fuels, sugar isn't an environmental toxin or a flammable substance. The entire fuel cell and its components are, according to Zhang, biodegradable, with air and water being produced as byproducts of the sugar reaction.
While Zhang's breakthrough may allow for significant improvements in sugar battery densities, a great number of barriers still sit between the lab and commercial applications. There's also the question of what mass commercialization would do to sugar prices -- the advent of corn-based biofuel
s drove the price of corn sharply skyward, but the promised fuel efficiency savings never really materialized for the technology. Still, there's a difference -- corn-based ethanol required substantially more processing to create the final fuel, whereas powering a fuel cell with refined sugar requires already-refined sugar.
Even if sugar-based fuel cells don't take over the mainstream markets, there are areas where they could be incredibly valuable. Poor agrarian areas might have a much easier time acquiring glucose than gasoline, particularly given that the latter requires sophisticated infrastructure. As an added bonus, Mountain Dew: Game Fuel takes on a whole new meaning when applied to a sugar fuel cell. "Drive your laptop -- and your life."