A team of researchers from the University of Toronto have created a battery that uses vitamin B2, commonly know as riboflavin, as a cathode.
Why you ask?
According to the senior author of the paper “Bio-Derived Polymers for Sustainable Lithium-Ion Batteries“, which was published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials in July, it’s all about efficiency. But if such a battery could be produced at scale it might have major implications for the environment.
“We’ve been looking to nature for a while to find complex molecules for use in a number of consumer electronics applications,” Dr. Dwight Seferos from the University of Toronto’s Department of Chemistry told Sci-News.com recently. “When you take something made by nature that is already complex, you end up spending less time making new material.”
The researchers say biologically derived organic molecules are a cheap and environmentally friendly alternative to metal-based electrodes. The majority of batteries contain two electrodes, a separator and an electrolyte. One of the electrodes, called a cathode, connects to the positive end of the battery and the other the electrode, the anode, connects to the negative. A current enters the anode and exits through the cathode. Between the two electrodes is an electrolyte, a liquid that is comprised of electrically charged particles. A separator keeps the two electrodes apart.
The trouble with current batteries is that they collectively use a ton of things like nickel and cobalt, which is really bad for the environment. A 2013 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment program warned that lithium-ion batteries have the “highest potential for environmental impacts”.
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The vitamin B2 cathode, however, has no such problem.
“It’s a pretty safe, natural compound. If you wanted to, you could actually eat the source material it comes from,” says Dr. Seferos.
There’s also cost to consider. The price of battery-grade lithium, which is typically sourced from the brine underneath salt lakes, has soared in recent years and has more than quadrupled since September of 2015.
The idea of using fruit and vegetables to create power isn’t exactly new, as anyone who has attended a school science fair can attest. But the question of scale has always persisted. Researchers in Israel recently found that a potato boiled for several minutes produces ten times the power of a raw spud, while costing about one-tenth what people shell out for a AA battery. One potato, they found, could light a room for an entire month. One notable downside was that food-based solutions ultimately compete for space with crops produced to eat, a development that could raise prices.
The University of Toronto researchers say their work should provide a foundation for the use of bio-derived polymers in high-performance lithium-ion batteries.