You know how it feels. You're streaming the latest episode of Game of Thrones on your smartphone, with 10 minutes left. Your device flashes what might as well be death at you: "5 minutes battery life remaining."
Thanks to scientists from the University of Cambridge, those types of heart-wrenching scenarios soon might be no more. They've just developed a new battery prototype based on your gut (no, not that awesome thing you rely on for business decisions, but your actual physical intestines). More specifically, they've copied the concept of villi. Thousands of these tiny structures line the inside of your intestinal wall, increasing its surface area by up to 30 times and aiding the good absorption of nutrients in whatever you eat or drink.
A power-yielding barrier
Here's how it works: Every battery has a positive electrode (cathode) and a negative electrode (anode). Between these is an electrolyte, a chemical substance that can conduct electricity. When you connect the battery to a circuit, chemical reactions cause ions to flow through the electrolyte. Electrons also travel around the circuit, producing current.
In the new battery prototype, during the usual chemical processes, sulfur in the cathode absorbs lithium from the anode. The sulfur molecules, which normally are ring-like in form, subsequently change into chain-like structures called polysulphides. The process puts a lot of stress on the cathode, so over time, the polysulphides break off and get into the electrolyte. The loss of this active material means that the battery degrades and loses its ability to provide power.
But this is where it gets awesome. Based on the structure of natural intestinal villi, the scientists created a flexible, high-surface area framework of zinc-oxide nanowires. This framework lies on top of the cathode. The chemical bond between the material and the polysulphides essentially traps those polysulphides from escaping into the electrolyte. Without the loss of the polysulphides, the integrity of the battery remains more stable, translating into a longer-lasting power source.
Combining research could overcome final obstacles
Developers have been researching alternatives to conventional lithium-ion batteries for years now, but the degradation of lithium-sulfur batteries always has remained a hurdle against commercialization. Now, though, the creation of the zinc-oxide nano-architecture could let lithium-sulfur batteries finally jump into the market. Other developments, such as coatings that improve lithium-sulfur battery safety at higher temperatures, are in the works, too, and major companies are taking note. As an example, Sony, the company that really gave lithium-ion batteries their big break, says its looking to improve battery capacities by as much as 40 percent by 2020, and is focusing both on lithium-sulfur and magnesium-sulfur batteries. That type of support could give lithium-sulfur batteries an edge over other options that also are improving, such as lithium-air.
The countdown to better power is official
Although you shouldn't expect to see lithium-sulfur batteries immediately popping up in laptops or cars, it likely won't be long before they give lithium-ion and other types of new batteries some stiff competition. With higher energy translating into more efficient devices that save money, it's an area worth following both for personal and business gains.