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Imagine a lightweight battery that can be any size or shape imaginable, that’s economical and environmentally friendly to make and to use, that charges faster than a conventional battery and holds that charge longer.
You’re not dreaming because it may be a reality in the not-too-distant future, powering everything from electric cars to smartphones.
And speaking of dreams, the device from Prieto Battery Inc. in Colorado is made of copper foam.
Prieto Battery is a startup founded by Amy Prieto based on her research as a student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. The brainchild is what she calls a “3-D battery” made up of the spongy copper, which is meant to be an improvement over the traditional “2-D” battery, which is composed of thin layers of metal surrounded by a current-conducting fluid.
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The copper foam – basically copper transformed into a porous structure – is so lacy that, by volume, it is 98 percent air, or void space, but has so much surface area that ions – electrically charged particles – don’t have to travel as far within the foam to be effective, thereby increasing the battery’s power and energy capacity.
A battery anode, or entry terminal for current, is affixed to the foam. This anode is made of copper antimonide, a blend of copper and antimony, a brittle metal often used in alloys. Then the anode-coated foam is combined with a conducting medium called an electrolyte that serves as a surface for moving ions. Then a cathode, or exit terminal for current, is added. The cathode is made of a liquid slurry.
Another drawback of conventional batteries is the use of toxic chemicals, such as sulfuric acid, which can be problematic when they’re being made and when they need to be discarded. Prieto Battery’s products, however, use only non-toxic chemicals, including citric acid, the substance that makes many fruits tart.
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The result of all this is a clean and inexpensive battery.
Probably the two most important improvements are that the Prieto batteries charge quickly and store up to twice as much energy as a conventional battery of the same size. What’s more, the Prieto batteries aren’t prone to overheating as lithium-ion batteries are. And they’re inexpensive to manufacture.
Prieto Battery uses a patent-pending technology to create the copper foam that requires fewer steps than are needed to make conventional batteries. It also ensures uninterrupted energy contact over the entire surface of the anode.
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The use of porous materials for batteries isn’t new. In 1998, Debra Rolison of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington suggested using porous carbon materials for 3-D batteries, and was initially was met with skepticism. Now, though, her idea is being explored by researchers using varied and innovative materials including mushrooms.
One such researcher is Max Hamedi of Harvard University, who is exploring how wood pulp can be used in batteries. He says this 3-D technology “has the potential to surpass any battery that you can build in 2-D systems. This work is just exploding right now.”
With all this good news, what could be bad? Just this: Prieto Battery says it will be a while before it can mass-produce a working version available to automakers, electronics manufacturers and ordinary consumers.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com