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Scientists use Silly Putty ingredient to improve batteries

By

May 16, 2014

Silicon polymer and battery used for the research

Silicon polymer and battery used for the research

If you see a group of scientists playing with a blob of Silly Putty, they might not be goofing off, they may be working on a technological breakthrough. That turned out to be the case with researchers at the University of California, Riverside Bourns College of Engineering , who have developed a way to use an ingredient in Silly Putty to improve lithium-ion battery life between charges by three times the industry standard.

Silly Putty came out of the Second World War thanks to an attempt to produce an artificial rubber to make up for wartime shortages. It failed miserably, but the strange substance that’s neither truly liquid or solid; that stretches like chewing gum, yet can be smashed with a hammer; and bounces like a ball, yet oozes like pudding, found its home when it was colored coral, stuffed in a plastic egg, and sold as a toy.

Though the putty never found an commercial application outside of being a plaything, it was later used for physiotherapy and to keep Apollo astronauts amused on the way to the Moon. In addition, in the early 1950s, a version of Silly Putty was used as an insulator in electronics thanks to its ability to settle into every nook and cranny of a relay unit. Now engineers are looking at the odd substance to improve battery life.

The researchers at the University of California used a modern variant of one of the main ingredients in Silly Putty, silicon dioxide (SiO2) to create a new battery anode. The reasoning behind this is that silicon dioxide is basically powdered quartz and as easy to come by as dirt. It’s also non-toxic and found in everything from children’s toys to fast foods. If it could be adapted for battery manufacture, it would have a great advantage over rarer elements.

The trick was to form this very common substance into more exotic nanotube anodes. That’s because this isn't the first time silicon dioxide has been tried in lithium-ion batteries, but the results previously haven’t been impressive. However, when formed into nanotubes, it produced three times the energy capacity compared to carbon-based anodes. More importantly, such nanotubes can be cycled 100 times and still maintain energy storage.

According to the researchers, the Silly Putty-derived nanotube anodes can be cycled for hundreds of times beyond the tested limits, and they are now working on how to scale the process up to commercial levels.

The teams results have been published in Nature.

Source; University of California, Riverside

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
5 Comments

Of course what this will lead to in most cases is batteries 1/3 the size for the same run-time instead of batteries the same size with three times the capacity.

Same thing happens with more efficient cars. Shrink the fuel tank so you still have to fill up just as often. Remember the 100 MPG mopeds, with a 1 pint tank?

I have a laptop with a 5 hour (under ideal usage) capacity. 15 hours would be very nice.

Gregg Eshelman
16th May, 2014 @ 12:32 pm PDT

The silly thing about this article is the reference to Silly Putty itself. Read the article in Nature. It says nothing about Silly Putty. Instead, the researchers used a new technique to manufacture nanotubes of silicon dioxide which turned out to be a superior material for one of the components in lithium ion batteries. Silicon dioxide, also known as silica, is basically sand. Yes, common sand as in that white crystalline substance that accumulates on beautiful white beaches and in desert sand dunes. Silica may be one of the ingredients in Silly Putty, but it's also used in manufacture of toothpaste, integrated circuits, and ordinary glass, among many other products. It's even the main component of diatomaceous earth, a powder comprised of the exoskeletons of microscopic algae.

overbyte
16th May, 2014 @ 06:34 pm PDT

Gregg - As you say, keep the size, just up the contained capacity.

Overbite - But it caught your eye?

If the scientists get the idea to production levels, then more power to them (pun, sorry)!

The Skud
18th May, 2014 @ 09:23 pm PDT

I used to use Silly Putty to copy off Comics from the Sunday Paper and then distort them until I laughed my @$$ off!

Ed
19th May, 2014 @ 12:30 pm PDT

Gregg: For some reason, I hate to fill up. I find it boring and I feel like I'm wasting my time. So when I found a car in 1967 that got 46 mpg, looked sexy, and wasn't expensive, I bought a new one. The specs said it had a 10.6 gallon tank. I could go almost 500 miles! Nope! The tank only held 7.3 gallons.

You are correct in your observation and it has been going on for a long time. I want to grab those engineers by the collar and yell: "What were you thinking?"

Don Duncan
9th July, 2014 @ 04:58 pm PDT
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