Your car’s broken down, you’re miles from a telephone, and your cell phone’s battery is dead. Who ya’ gonna call?
Researchers at the Bournes College of Engineering at the University of California-Riverside (UCR) have successfully used one of Silly Putty’s main components, silicon dioxide, to create nanotube anodes for lithium-ion batteries.
The result? The Holy Grail of 21st-century energy: batteries with more than three times the storage capacity for electricity than the current anodes, which are based on carbon. If the research pans out, it would be a boon to industries that manufacture everything from cell phones to electric cars.
Silicon dioxide – a form of sand – is not only used in Silly Putty. It’s also used in medical devices and even as a “flow agent” in some granular foods.
Silly as it sounds, Silly Putty -- the strange looking, tan, malleable blob of goo that comes in a plastic egg and delights children everywhere -- has serious origins. Early in World War II, Japan attacked many rubber-producing centers in Asia, sharply limiting U.S. supplies of rubber needed for its war effort, from tires to boots.
Rubber was rationed, and Americans were urged to donate any articles containing rubber that they no longer needed. Even scientists got involved, working to synthesize rubber to reduce the country’s reliance on the real thing.
One of these researchers was James Wright, an engineer at General Electric's laboratory in New Haven, Conn. In 1943 Wright came up with a kind of solid that also was quite liquid. It could be rolled into a ball and bounced, it could be stretched, and melted only at a very high temperature.
Silly Putty could even be pressed against a newspaper and make a mirror image – in color, where applicable – of the print.
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But it wouldn’t serve for tires or boots or any other practical use. Evidently its value was simply that it was fun to play with.
The groundbreaking research is outlined in a paper, “Stable Cycling of SiO2 Nanotubes as High-Performance Anodes for Lithium-Ion Batteries,” published online in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.
The paper says the six-member research team had decided to experiment with silicon dioxide because it is an extremely abundant compound, environmentally friendly and non-toxic.
This isn’t the first time researchers have explored the potential of silicon dioxide in lithium-ion batteries. But the UCR researchers discovered how to form the chemical into nanotubes, which enable the batteries to produce more energy.
Nanotubes are conduits small enough to control the movement of individual atoms.
The next step, as with any commercially important discovery, is to figure out how to ramp up production of the silicon dioxide nanotube anodes.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com