Sugar in batteries: extending life cycles in more than just food
News emerged this week of sugar’s latest innovative application – as a component in batteries of the future. Here, we explore how the unique properties of sugar continue to amaze yet again.
Introducing the lithium-sulphur batteries of tomorrow’s world
The research team from the Monash Energy Institute in Australia believe they have found a more sustainable alternative to lithium-ion batteries. And what ingredient could be supporting this potentially game-changing energy advancement? Sugar, of course.
Sugar’s latest innovation sees it used in lithium-sulphur batteries.
Thanks to sugar, the Monash team report that lithium-sulphur batteries could soon be the batteries of the future. However, lithium-sulphur batteries themselves are not new. Up to now, they just have not been commercially viable because charging and discharging deteriorates them quickly and, as a result, they have a short life span of approximately 50 charge cycles – compared to between 500 and 1000 for a lithium-ion battery.
How do they work?
Traditionally, lithium-sulphur batteries work by charging a lithium anode with a sulphur cathode. Through usage, however, this deteriorates the electrode, with the removal of sulphur degrading the cathode and polysulphides (lithium ions absorbed by the sulphur electrode) forming on the anode. In effect, this insulates the anode and further weakens the battery’s performance.
So, the Monash team went about creating a solution to these challenges. As part of their research, they found that incorporating a “saccharide-based binder system” to a sulphur cathode stabilised the sulphur and prevented it from coating and insulating the lithium electrode, therefore increasing the performance of the battery.
Indeed, the research states that incorporating sugar on the cathode can “impart two critical functionalities”, as follows:
“Firstly, glucose, being a strong reducing agent, enables the conversion of higher order LiPS [lithium polysulphides] to lower order LiPS, while also enhancing the LiPS retention capacity – these properties improve the battery chemistry by slowing polysulfide shuttling. Secondly, glucose has a strong role as a viscosity modifier of the binder liquid, with order-of-magnitude changes recorded.”
For the full technical explanation of how sugar enhances performance in lithium-sulphur batteries, read the original research published in this Nature Communications article.
What benefits does this bring?
According to the research, using sugar in these lithium-sulphur batteries can increase their durability to 1000 charge cycles. This would therefore match the performance of the lithium-ion batteries that power most of today’s electric vehicles and electronic devices.
One benefit this brings is helping make battery production more sustainable, with the research group stating that lithium-ion batteries are made using “exotic, toxic, and expensive materials” such as cobalt, nickel and manganese, which are in increasingly short supply around the world.
And of course, the other benefit is the potential to improve performance. Indeed, in theory, the use of sugar could help result in lithium-sulphur batteries that store two to five times more energy than lithium-ion batteries of the same weight. These developments – and commercialising them – may still be some time away, but the potential appears promising.
Sugar once again used to extend product life cycles
Sugar is the ultimate natural shelf-life extender in food and beverage products, and this latest application in batteries appears to share the underlying principles of this capability, at least figuratively.
In food and beverage terms, this is because sugar is both a natural preservative and a humectant. The former means sugar prevents microbial growth by reducing water activity – the means through which bacteria can grow – in an application and, therefore, this enables food and beverage products to stay fresher for longer. And though sugar reduces water activity in these foods and beverages, it manages to retain moisture because it is a natural humectant.
So, while using sugar to increase the life cycle of a battery is undoubtedly new, the overarching concept of extending shelf lives is anything but. Sugar has unique natural properties, and these are exactly why we continue to see it used in new and exciting ways – a trend that won’t ever stop. Whether it is used as a means of redefining fashion, as a feedstock for sustainable plastics, or as an ingredient in commercial food and beverage production, sugar continues to inspire.
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