Researchers develop safer and more flexible batteries from soy-lignin

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Canadians use and discard a lot of batteries. The devices power dozens of our most commonly used items like cell phones and laptops, and they don’t just appear and disappear.

The chemicals used in making batteries need to be mined, processed and transported, and at the end of their life, batteries can cause environmental and health problems as they degrade. Environment Canada estimates that by 2015, we will be discarding as much as 22,600 tonnes of batteries each year, equivalent to nearly a billion AA batteries.

New collaborative research between International Visiting Research Scholar, Dr. Katie Zhong, and Peter Wall Faculty Associate, Dr. Frank Ko, could help solve that problem. While Dr. Ko develops electrodes from lignin– a tree polymer that gives plants their structure and is the second most abundant organic polymer on the planet– Dr. Zhong has been solving the other half of the bio-battery equation, using soy proteins to develop solid electrolytes.

“I believe nobody has been doing this kind of research, incorporating bio-electrolytes and bio-electrodes to make bio-batteries,” says Dr. Zhong.

Like her associate Dr. Ko, Dr. Zhong believes that a key part of her research should be to develop commercial applications. Currently her lab is working on assembling the bio-batteries and looking for companies interested in bringing the technology to the world. She hopes the batteries find their way into the marketplace within a couple of years.

“For batteries, you can’t just stop at fundamental research,” she says. “We must target commercialization.”

With the next generation of electronics promising to be flexible, foldable, and even elastic, the soy-lignin bio-batteries are just in time. Currently, the shape, size and weight of batteries are limiting factors in how electronics are designed, but with Dr. Zhong and Dr. Ko’s bio-batteries just around the corner, electronics will be freed from those restraints. Wearable electronics, for example, have just become much closer to realization thanks to this technology.   

The benefits of bio-batteries keep sprouting. Manufacturing bio-batteries from soy and lignin would mean that we could essentially grow the materials needed to produce the power sources for our gadgets.

The soy-based, solid electrolytes Dr. Zhong is developing have another upside. The danger of the liquid electrolytes currently present in the batteries in our laptop computers is that they have various safety issues, and are at risk of being punctured. Solid electrolytes do not have the same problem.

“The most important characteristic for this type of battery is that it is safer,” says Dr. Zhong. “It will not cause corrosion problems. It will not cause environmental problems.”

Dr. Zhong has been at the forefront of materials research for two decades since she received her PhD in the Composites and Manufacturing Program at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (BUAA). Five years later, she became the university’s youngest full professor and one of the youngest in all of China. An international visiting professorship brought her to the United States in 2001 and she returned in 2003 to accept a full-time position at North Dakota State University. That international spirit has stayed with her in her new chair position as Westinghouse Distinguished Professor at Washington State University, where she continues to work across the border with Dr. Ko and his team on their electrifying discovery.

“The USA and Canada are so close, but there isn’t a lot of opportunity for researchers to collaborate,” she laments. “The Peter Wall Institute supports that collaboration.”