A sugar-powered fuel cell is cheap, biodegradable, and powerful enough to run electronic gadgets. It’s also refillable–if the charge is running low, you can just add more sugar. It sounds too, er, sweet to be true but a mobile phone running on sugar might actually be possible.
Through the new process developed at Virginia Tech, sugar can slowly, steadily keep a battery running. It isn’t the first time that scientists have made a fuel cell using sugar, but it’s the first time that this type of battery has been strong enough that it’s actually feasible to put into production, says Y.H. Percival Zhang, a biological systems engineering professor who led the project.
“We believe sugar is a new oil,” Zhang says. Unlike oil, of course, we won’t run out of sugar because we can grow more of it. Zhang points out that the fuel doesn’t have to come from sugar cane used in food; it can also be extracted from plants like switchgrass or even from waste that’s a natural byproduct of growing grains (though this is more expensive).
By tweaking a set of enzymes, the researchers were able to create a battery with 12 times the energy density of any past sugar battery. The density is also an order of magnitude higher than that of a lithium battery.
Still, the batteries are not strong enough to charge everything. “Sugar biobatteries cannot replace all batteries,” Zhang says. The fuel cells that run electric cars, for example, need so much energy that it couldn’t carry around all the sugar fuel it would need (Zhang, in a separate project, is also working on creating what he calls “sweet hydrogen” produced from sugar).
The smaller batteries could, however easily power electronics like tablets or smartphones. That means they may eventually replace the typical lithium or alkaline batteries used to charge household gadgets, and rechargeable batteries as well.
While it will still be a big leap to get this lab project into your iPhone, sugar bio-batteries would make a lot of sense for the environment. Every year, around a billion batteries end up in landfills in the U.S. alone. In many places, alkaline batteries aren’t even recyclable. Rechargeable batteries, made with heavy metals like nickel and cadmium, also usually end up in the trash even though they’re toxic. When the sugar batteries are thrown away, by contrast, they will safely biodegrade–deliciously.