By Irina Slav
The race for cheaper, better batteries has never been more intense and more interesting. The latest contender comes from Australia, from RMIT University. It is a hybrid between a chemical battery and a fuel cell that combines cheap resources—carbon and water—and promising efficiency.
The battery works by breaking down water in the fuel cell with the help of electrons from an electric circuit. The protons resulting from this breakdown pass the cell membrane and bond with the carbon electrode where they are stored as hydrogen ions. That’s the charging part of the process.
The power generation part reverses the process: the hydrogen is released from the carbon electrode and passes back through the fuel cell, shedding an electron, which turns them back into protons. These exit the cell to join the oxygen and electrons from the external circuit to become water again.
It seems the great thing about this battery is that it does not release hydrogen gas, which would have compromised its effectiveness. Also, it is being improved already, with the team behind the invention planning to utilize the superconductive graphene to boost the battery’s efficiency.
The leader of the team that developed the battery, Professor John Andrews, says that with the improvements made possible by graphene, the proton battery could become a real challenger for lithium-ion batteries and advance efforts for energy storage solutions that pave the way for a renewable energy future.
The battery is the result of years of hard work, as scientists overcame challenges such as the reversibility of the process and the rechargeability, both of which were initially too low. As a result of their efforts, they managed to store some 1 wt% (weight per cent) in the carbon electrode. This, according to the RMIT University press release, is comparable to the energy per unit mass capacity of lithium-ion batteries.
The battery has just stepped on the road to optimization, so there is considerable space for improvements, it seems. For now, the battery is small, just 1.2 V, and the next challenge for the team would be to make it scalable.
Perhaps some would be getting bored by this point. It’s been breakthrough after breakthrough in batteries these last couple of years, with none so far living up to the promise fast enough to challenge the dominant lithium-ion technology.
What’s more, lithium-ion battery developers are constantly improving their products. They are not waiting for the challengers to catch up. In most of the cases, scalability while keeping costs down and efficiency high has been the main obstacle for the viability of non-Li-ion contenders. Yet, with the amount of interest in lithium-ion battery alternatives, it is probably only a matter of time before one of these proves scalable and hence commercially viable.
Meanwhile, there are advancements being made on the emission-free power generation, too. MIT researchers say they have brought the world a step closer to nuclear fusion—a technology notoriously joked about that it is always 30 years too early for it. The researchers found a way to contain superhot plasma more successfully, which could make its actual use—to produce more energy than it consumes—a reality at some point. This could make a lot of batteries unnecessary, but it is way too early to make such predictions.