Scientist has revolutionary idea to make batteries more sustainable

As the world transitions from using fossil fuels to clean energy sources for their everyday energy needs, batteries are becoming more crucial than ever before. And now a young scientist in Texas has an idea that could revolutionize batteries and make them more sustainable.

Electric cars are becoming increasingly popular around the world, including in the United States where Volkswagen just released the first major advertisement of a new electric vehicle in the nation.

It’s a car that’s even more eco-friendly than ever before. But even though batteries are getting cheaper, they are still made of materials that there just is not enough of to make an electric car for everyone, making them unsustainable.

But Texas A&M University Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering Jodie Lutkenhaus is working on a project to develop sustainable batteries that could also help alleviate the growing problem of single-use plastics at the same time.

“I envision that the batteries of the future will be metal-free, organic and recyclable,” Lutkenhaus told the World Economic Forum earlier this month. “Practically all batteries on the market contain metals such as cobalt, lithium, nickel, and manganese, which assist in storing and delivering energy or electrons. We’ve been developing a type of organic polymer that stores and delivers electrons, similar to today’s battery materials. The polymers contain the same elements found in life: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Our long-term goal is to identify organic polymer chemistries that maximize performance, while providing a recyclable platform. To-date, the major benefit of these materials is their ability to fully charge in minutes, whereas today’s batteries can take much longer.”

So, we would get a recyclable battery that uses materials already found in the natural world instead of using metals that can pollute the environment AND get a faster charge. That’s pretty damn cool. But where do the scientists plan to get these organic polymers?

Well, Lutkenhaus put it simply.

“We make batteries out of plastics,” she said. “Imagine using materials similar to plastic bags, and designing them to power your cell phone.”

That’s a particularly big deal at a time when our world is getting buried in plastics. This polymer battery offers a way to reuse some of them for our energy needs.

“When I talk with people about polymers or plastics, they often think of plastic bags, packaging, and materials for construction or transportation,” she continued. “They are often surprised to learn that some polymers can conduct electricity, change colours as sensors or store energy. Polymers are exciting to me because we can make them do almost anything when using the right chemistry.”

That means these polymers have a lot of possible uses beyond battery technology. But it’s energy we need most right now.

There’s skepticism, of course, but Lutkenhaus says that the batteries her and her team are developing are reusable and others can see that for themselves if they do the research and even start working in her field of expertise.

“I’ll often hear skepticism about the stability of our materials in the harsh environment of a battery,” she says. “However, our materials can be reused thousands of times. Over time, as more people work in the field and study these materials, I expect this skepticism will morph into curiosity.”

Lutkenhaus concedes that organic polymer batteries are several years away, but the development continues to march forward and they get closer to succeeding by the day.

“We are still a ways off from truly realizing metal-free, recyclable batteries, but every year I take satisfaction that we are one step closer, she said.

Organic polymer batteries would revolutionize the energy sector. While we only have a finite supply of precious metals to build batteries right now, polymers found in plastics offer a resource that we have an overabundance of at the moment. These batteries would not only take clean energy to whole new level, they would help us clean up the planet and save it from the ravages of climate change. That’s the kind of ingenuity and innovation we desperately need.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.

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