As the world becomes more reliant on batteries to power all sorts of gadgets and machinery, there will come a time when existing solutions just won’t be enough anymore. Someday, the need for alternative energy storage solutions will become a major problem. And when that day arrives, it will be good to have a properly working solution at the ready.
A team of researchers at the RMIT University in Australia now believe that they have created one of these future solutions. It comes in the form of a rechargeable proton battery, which they said has the potential to store a lot more energy than current standard lithium ion batteries. The proton battery is currently in the prototype stage, but it’s a work in progress.
According to Professor John Andrews, the lead researcher who worked on the study, they are simply trying to work in advance of an impending shortage of resources that are needed to make conventional lithium ion batteries as well as other typical energy storage solutions. “As the world moves towards inherently-variable renewable energy to reduce greenhouse emissions and tackle climate change, requirements for electrical storage will be gargantuan,” he said.
“The proton battery is one among many potential contributors towards meeting this enormous demand for energy storage,” Andrews added. “Powering batteries with protons has the potential to be more economical than using lithium ions, which are made from scarce resources.”
The researchers noted that their alternative was created through the use of carbon, which ended up being the primary resource that made up the final prototype. Carbon, as a material, is quite abundant and a lot cheaper to work with compared with the metal hydrogen-storage alloys and the lithium used in conventional rechargeable batteries.
It is said that while charging, the carbon in the electrode bonds with the protons generated by splitting water through the use of electrons from the power supply. Afterwards, protons get released and then pass back through the reversible fuel cell in order to form water with oxygen from air. This is ultimately what ends up generating power. In use, this does not burn any carbon or cause any kind of emission, unlike fossil fuels. (Related: Ancient technology provides solution for energy storage.)
What the researchers have created so far is just a small-scale prototype of the proton battery that they have envisioned. The small proton battery prototype has an active inside surface of only 5.5 square centimeters, but successfully stored as much energy per unit mass as commercially available lithium ion batteries, according to the researchers. And this performance was before optimization.
“Our latest advance is a crucial step towards cheap, sustainable proton batteries that can help meet our future energy needs,” commented Andrews, “without further damaging our already fragile environment.”
For now, Andrews’ research team will work on further improving the proton battery’s performance and energy density by using atomically-thin layered carbon-based materials like graphene. And when it finally becomes commercially available, “it will be a competitor to the Tesla Powerwall” at some point in the future, said Andrews. He also said that this could happen within five to 10 years, so you better keep an eye out for it by the mid-2020s.
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