As a new year comes around, there has been a resurgence in focus on innovative, low-carbon technologies that may support the transition to green in the coming years. In addition to human urine as fertilizer and genetically engineered, nitrogen-absorbing plants, one product with major potential is the biobattery. Energy firms and governments worldwide are pumping billions into new lithium operations, in a bid to mine enough of the mineral to power electric batteries needed for electronic devices and electric vehicles (EVs) around the globe, with demand set to rise sharply over the next decade and beyond.
The global demand for lithium has soared in recent years as the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries for electronic devices, such as mobile phones and laptops, and EVs has risen. And this is generally seen as a good thing, as it marks a gradual movement away from fossil fuel-powered cars in favor of less-polluting EVs. However, ditching one energy source and switching reliance to another is worrying; in this case, we’re moving towards reliance on the metals and minerals that are powering green energy and related technology.
More lithium mines are being developed every year, in several locations worldwide. As the so-called lithium triangle, comprising mining operations across Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, continues to grow, providing much of the world’s lithium, new projects are also being developed in unexpected locations. But all this new mining activity has environmentalists concerned about its potential impact on the environment. While it marks a positive movement away from drilling for fossil fuels and burning carbon-heavy oil, gas, and coal, it will likely have a huge impact on the environment and ecosystems of the mining regions.
As energy experts try to innovate ahead of further environmental degradation or the overreliance on yet another natural resource, biobatteries are gaining more attention. These batteries use biological molecules to break down other biological molecules, releasing electrons in the process, and allowing energy to be stored in batteries made of organic compounds. This could see even greater levels of energy being stored in a small space than in traditional electric batteries. It could also help reduce the level of toxic metals being used in batteries.
One idea is to use chemicals found in crab and lobster shells to develop batteries. The chitin found in crustation shells, as well as fungi and insects, is often discarded as food waste in homes and restaurants. However, it might hold the key to developing a cleaner battery, reducing reliance on lithium and other mined metals. The University of Maryland’s Center for Materials Innovation recently released a paper for the potential use of these shells in batteries, with the director of the center, Liangbing Hu, stating “We think both biodegradability of material, or environmental impact, and the performance of the batteries are important for a product, which has the potential to be commercialised.”
To make this innovation possible, chitin would need to be processed, adding acetic acid aqueous solution, to create a firm gel membrane to be used as an electrolyte in a battery. This would help ions travel inside batteries, storing energy. The chitosan electrolyte could be combined with naturally occurring zinc to make renewable batteries both safer and cheaper. Further, the batteries are not flammable, and the chitosan can break down in soil in around five months, leaving only renewable zinc.
Maryland is not the only university looking to develop biobatteries, with LUT University in Finland also conducting research into the technology. In 2023, LUT plans to invest in the development of a battery material laboratory to develop battery cells. Pertti Kauranen, an energy storage professor at LUT University, explains “Alongside lithium batteries, we will need to develop alternative solutions based on more common and possibly even bio-based raw materials.”
But while there are high hopes for the future of biobatteries, at present, the technology remains limited. With the current state of biobatteries, smartphones would require thousands of them to be powered effectively. However, as research and development into new types of biobatteries speeds up, and different bacteria are combined to help improve upon battery performance, there is optimism around the development of effective biobatteries within the next decade.
With worries mounting about the need for increased mining activities worldwide to extract metals and minerals for use in the renewable energy industry – once again putting reliance on finite natural resources – environmentalists and researchers are racing to develop low-carbon, environmentally-friendly technologies. Greater investment in research and development into new renewable energy options and related technology could help us avoid a potential ecological disaster, as seen in the past with the development of the fossil fuel industry and over-reliance on oil, gas, and coal. And biobatteries could provide the sustainable option we need to power the future of electrical devices and transport.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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