L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

06 April 2007 Blog Home : April 2007 : Permalink

Sugar Batteries

All the Independent (and other greenies) who have recently been bitching about biofuels may now have to rethink. Thanks to reading this week's Cringely column, I have learned that a smart (lady) chemist called Shelley Minteer and her research group in St Loius have announced a fuel cell that runs on sugar (and in fact not just one sort of sugar but a wide variety of sugars and plant saps).

“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,” says study leader Shelley Minteer, Ph.D., an electrochemist at Saint Louis University. “It demonstrates that by bridging biology and chemistry, we can build a better battery that’s also cleaner for the environment.”

Using sugar for fuel is not a new concept: Sugar in the form of glucose supplies the energy needs of all living things. While nature has figured out how to harness this energy efficiently, scientists only recently have learned how to unleash the energy-dense power of sugar to produce electricity, Minteer says.

A few other researchers also have developed fuel cell batteries that run on sugar, but Minteer claims that her version is the longest-lasting and most powerful of its type to date. As proof of concept, she has used a small prototype of the battery (about the size of a postage stamp) to successfully run a handheld calculator. If the battery continues to show promise during further testing and refinement, it could be ready for commercialization in three to five years, she estimates.

By removing the sugar to ethanol conversion step that ethanol powered engines need she must vastly improve the efficiency of the total process. In addition her fuel cell produces electricity rather than the heat/motion that ethanol engines make and hence the process can be used for more than just driving, although given that fuel cell cars are being prototyped it can be used for that too.

Assuming this scales up well and that the development gets proper funding (likely since the US military has taken interest in it), this could be the first step towards weaning humanity off fossil fuels. Although I am somewhat of a global warming skeptic I'm all in favour of weaning humanity from fossil fuels because it will remove the monetary prop for a large number of unpleasant regimes and it allows said fuels to be used only where they are the most appropriate, such as the manufacture of plastics.

The next step - which is also likely to be best performed using an enzymatic approach - will be to create something that can turn celluloses and starches into sugars. When that happens everyone's lawn-clippings, not to mention the stubble and straw produced by farmers as well as products which grow in the cold (e.g. potatoes or sugar beet) can all be used to make electricity. In fact I guess sugar beet can already be so used because we know how to (fairly inefficiently) turn sugar beet into sugar.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin