Sugar Battery Packs More Energy Than Lithium

Virginia Tech researchers have built a high-density fuel cell that uses an enzymatic pathway to create a lot of electricity from glucose. +

Published: 22-Jan-2014

As you probably know, from sucking down cans of Coke and masticating on candy, sugar — glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose — is an excellent source of energy. Biologically speaking, sugar molecules are energy-dense, easy to transport, and cheap to digest. There is a reason why almost every living cell on Earth generates its energy (ATP) from glucose. Now, researchers at Virginia Tech have successfully created a sugar-powered fuel cell that has an energy storage density of 596 amp-hours per kilo — or “one order of magnitude” higher than lithium-ion batteries. This fuel cell is refillable with a solution of maltodextrin, and its only by products are electricity and water. The chief researcher, Y.H. Percival Zhang, says the tech could be commercialized in as soon as three years.

Now, it’s not exactly news that sugar is an excellent energy source. As a culture we’ve probably known about it since before we were Homo sapiens. The problem is, unless you’re a living organism or some kind of incendiary device, extracting that energy is difficult. In nature, an enzymatic pathway is used — a production line of tailor-made enzymes that meddle with the glucose molecules until they become ATP. Because it’s easy enough to produce enzymes in large quantities, researchers have tried to create fuel cells that use artificial “metabolism” to break down glucose into electricity (biobatteries), but it has historically proven very hard to find the right pathway for maximum efficiency and to keep the enzymes in the right place over a long period of time.

Now, however, Zhang and friends at Virginia Tech appear to have built a high-density fuel cell that uses an enzymatic pathway to create a lot of electricity from glucose. There doesn’t seem to be much information on how stable this biobattery is over multiple refills, but if Zhang thinks it could be commercialized in three years, that’s a very good sign. Curiously, the research paper says that the enzymes are non-immobilized — meaning Zhang found a certain battery chemistry that doesn’t require the enzymes to be kept in place… or, alternatively, that it will only work for a very short time.

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