Sugar-fuelled battery soon to juice up portable electronics

New technology uses any sugar source from soft drinks to tree sap for fuel

Fuel cell technology that is currently in development boasts the ability of extracting energy from virtually any sugar source to power portable electronics like cellular phones, laptops, and sensors. The new technology is expected to be biodegradable, environmentally friendly and more energy efficient than current options, providing a green alternative to current Lithium-ion batteries.

The cell operates at room temperature and uses enzymes to oxidize sugars, hence generating electricity. So far, researchers have run the batteries on glucose, flat soft drinks, sweetened drink mixes and tree sap.

Despite only attaining a maximum of 20 percent efficiency in the conversion of sugar to electricity, researchers say the new batteries will operate three to four times longer on a single charge than current battery technology.

"This study shows that renewable fuels can be directly employed in batteries at room temperature to lead to more energy-efficient battery technology than metal-based approaches," said study leader Shelley Minteer, an electrochemist at Saint Louis University in the U.S.

"Right now we are looking at only partial oxidations, so no more than 20% efficiency, but we are improving as we go along," she said. "Employing sugar as a fuel can lead to three to four times the energy density [of metal-based batteries], which leads to a battery that will operate three to four times longer than current battery technology."

While using sugar for fuel is not a new concept, scientists only recently have learned how to produce electricity from sugar.

Minteer said that her technology is believed to be the longest-lasting and most powerful of its type to date.

One of the first applications envisioned for the sugar fuel cell is a portable cell phone recharger that would contain special cartridges that would be pre-filled with a sugar solution and easily replaced after use. Ultimately, Minteer hopes that the sugar battery can be used as a stand-alone battery replacement in a wide range of portable electronic devices.

"The consumer electronic won't be adapted, but instead a new battery will be developed for the battery compartment," she said. "The only difference [between the new battery and existing technology] will be that the battery will have to contain air holes to allow oxygen into the cell."

Besides being used in consumer electronics, the technology also has potential for use in the military, where sugar batteries could charge equipment in situations where access to electricity is limited. Devices could then be recharged by adding virtually any convenient sugar source, including plant sap, Minteer said.

The technology has been licensed to a small company for commercialisation, and is expected to reach the market in three to five years.

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