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Sugar batteries could be greener, cheaper and store more energy than lithium-ions


January 21, 2014

The batteries, actually mini fuel cells, could be refilled with sugar as needed (Photo: Sh...

The batteries, actually mini fuel cells, could be refilled with sugar as needed (Photo: Shutterstock)

Even today's best rechargeable lithium batteries do lose their ability to hold a charge after a while, and are considered toxic waste once discarded. In just a few years, however, they may be replaced by batteries that are refillable and biodegradable, and that will also have a higher energy density yet a lower price ... and they'll run on sugar.

"Sugar is a perfect energy storage compound in nature," says Virginia Tech's Prof. Y.H. Percival Zhang, who is leading the research. "So it's only logical that we try to harness this natural power in an environmentally friendly way to produce a battery."

Zhang's isn't the first experimental sugar battery, although he claims that its energy density is "an order of magnitude higher than others."

It's actually a type of enzymatic fuel cell. For fuel, it utilizes maltodextrin, which is a polysaccharide made from the hydrolysis of starch (polysaccharides are chains of sugars). The catalyst in its anode is made from inexpensive enzymes, as opposed to the costly platinum that's used in regular batteries.

When the maltodextrin is combined with air, water and electricity are produced. Unlike the case with a hydrogen fuel cell, however, the sugar battery is non-explosive and non-flammable.

Zhang envisions users refilling the batteries with sugar when they need refueling, "much like filling a printer cartridge with ink." He hopes that they may be powering electronic devices in as little as three years.

A paper on his research was published today in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: Virginia Tech

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth


Bob Ehresman
21st January, 2014 @ 03:19 pm PST

It is not clear, but from the way this is worded, I get the impression that these are non-rechargeable (in the common sense, as opposed to "refillable")?

Even if they are not, the energy density is impressive. But it would be even better, of course, if they were rechargeable.

Anne Ominous
21st January, 2014 @ 04:31 pm PST

@Anne Ominous,

It's a fuel cell, not a battery. It's "rechargeable" in that it's refillable. As a bonus, you can refill a fuel cell or fuel tank a lot faster than charging any battery.

21st January, 2014 @ 05:03 pm PST

What is the waste byproduct from this energy production? When you refill it what comes out?

21st January, 2014 @ 05:45 pm PST

Wouldn't this become the same issue that we are having problems with corn now. So much of the product of corn is now used in gasoline and other products that it has raised the price of food that has corn in it. The use of sugar in batteries will eventually raise the price.

Wade D Hinkle
21st January, 2014 @ 05:50 pm PST

Sounds clever! Excuse me while I sneak away and try to corner the sugar market ...

The Skud
21st January, 2014 @ 06:18 pm PST

Imagine asking Places like McDonald's or Starbucks for extra sugar to charge your smartphone

21st January, 2014 @ 06:28 pm PST


Dear god, I'd better stock up now before it becomes too expensive for home brewing or I'll be left with thin, weak headed booze :(

I wonder which Maltodextrins they're playing with and how temperature dependent they are.

Anne, I'm not sure on the energy density, "an order of magnitude higher than others." Others being experimental sugar batteries.

Would have been nice to have been given an potential vs Li-ion Benji! :)

Craig Jennings
21st January, 2014 @ 06:28 pm PST

Wade D Hinkle,

that would be a good thing, the less sugar we eat the better.

Denis Klanac
21st January, 2014 @ 07:12 pm PST

Another empty promise of better batteries, how many articles like this do we see every week? Yet batteries still suck balls even after all these years.

I'll believe it when I see it.

21st January, 2014 @ 09:46 pm PST

"When the maltodextrin is combined with air, water and electricity are produced..."


According to Wikipedia, maltodextrin has the formula: C6nH(10n+2)O(5n+1).

Looks like there's a lot of carbon in there to me, what happens to it?

22nd January, 2014 @ 06:24 am PST

Can we use Splenda instead? Seriously. Or the dreaded Aspertame? There's got to be a better use for these things than poisoning our bodies with them in place of sugar.

Ed Weibe
22nd January, 2014 @ 08:48 am PST

@ coresnake: Seriously, I remember reading here about 'tin whisker anodes' for Li-ion batteries that'd hold almost 3X the charge; it was supposed to be commercialized in a year, this article was two years ago. I guess by 'emerging technologies' they mean maybe, someday.

22nd January, 2014 @ 08:52 am PST

non-explosive. well that takes all the fun out of it. You know what I'm talking about if you have had a 1200 amp car/truck battery blow up in your face, my ears rang for a week !

Jay Finke
22nd January, 2014 @ 09:00 am PST

This may well be one of the greatest finds of humanity... a Chinese Scientist, in an American University did it and I say super bravo if it is true.

As a child I loved Popular Mechanics and Popular Science and this is so much better, delivering wonderful goodies every day... Just amazing!

Lewis M. Dickens III
22nd January, 2014 @ 09:13 am PST

finally a good use for "white death" just think ,,if we use the poison for something useful instead of addicting people and killing other animals. I like the idea of a fuel cell on sugar,,,keep it out of the food supply,,the only good sugar is fermented.

22nd January, 2014 @ 09:14 am PST

Like any sugar oxidizing process, obviously, CO2 is generated. What I'm wondering about is enzyme replenishment. Wouldn't the enzymes go out with the waste water? Or maybe they're held in place somewhere somehow?

Victor Engel
22nd January, 2014 @ 09:15 am PST

{Zhang envisions users refilling the batteries with sugar when they need refueling, "much like filling a printer cartridge with ink."}

Oh, great. That means the either the price of sugar will become astronomical, or each fuel cell will require its own particular formulation of sugar in order to refill it (think proprietary ink).

22nd January, 2014 @ 09:45 am PST

@ Wade D Hinkle:

Not to the extent there is with corn. Sugarcane can only be grown in a few parts of the country unlike corn which can be grown most anywhere with a long enough growing season. Sugarcane also has higher yields than corn per acre.

All that said, sugar would probably become a major import product because I'm not sure there would be enough suitable land in the US to meet demand for batteries and consumption, at least not with current and predicted regulations.

22nd January, 2014 @ 09:47 am PST

I don't think we should eat frankencrops like corn or wheat, anyway, so let's use it for fuel.

David Best
22nd January, 2014 @ 10:35 am PST

The sugar Maltodextrin, used in the fuel cell, is not the same as the sugar Sucrose, or table sugar.

22nd January, 2014 @ 10:37 am PST

@ Wade D Hinkle, @Thane36425

the myth that corn as ethanol dramatically affects food prices is way way way overblown. Most corn is used as feed for animals to begin with and after the ethanol process ~90% of the corn remains as dried distillers grain which can still be fed to animals. A small % of that corn is actually used up in the process. Now if you want to discuss whether corn ethanol is good for the environment, that is a tougher issue to grapple with.

A perfect example of how corn for ethanol doesn't affect the cost of food is that ethanol production is currently running flat out this year - record rates. However, corn prices have fallen 30% from the start of 2013. Has the cost of food dropped? Don't think so. Weather and it's affect on the size of the crop is the only thing that matters when it comes to grain prices and the resulting price of your box of Cheerios.

22nd January, 2014 @ 10:39 am PST

'When the maltodextrin is combined with air, water and electricity are produced.'

Does this imply the fuel cell is porous enough to interact with air and water, or is it completely sealed and the air and water are injected into the fuel cell? Not understanding the exact nature of this cell, I'm imagining an endless line of tiny ants crawling into your electronic gadgets or into your car. Please test it in the tropics before marketing.

22nd January, 2014 @ 10:54 am PST

I wonder how long it will be before they can make a 7.7 amp-hour, 12 volt battery the size of a stapler that can deliver over 300 amps continuously and can be recharged in 5 minutes.

Because I have a Lithium Polymer battery with that spec. And it can deliver over 600 amps in a burst.

22nd January, 2014 @ 12:30 pm PST

Sugar comes from other sources than cane. In the US the main source is sugar beets, which is grown here, although I don't know how much additional land could be converted to cultivating beets, nor whether their cultivation is as damaging to the soil and environment as corn.

Mary Jo Burke
22nd January, 2014 @ 12:35 pm PST

To warren52nz:

Here is the figure of merit from the "Nature" paper (which I did not buy):

Enzymatic fuel cells containing a 15% (wt/v) maltodextrin solution have an energy-storage density of 596 Ah kg−1, which is one order of magnitude higher than that of lithium-ion batteries.

Scott in California
22nd January, 2014 @ 02:34 pm PST

Good way to reuse surplus sugar alone for Energy for cars, planes etc.

Awesome & reduce sugar in soda, candies etc alone.

More jobs.

Stephen N Russell
22nd January, 2014 @ 03:27 pm PST

20ml coke bottle shaped energy cells for you camera , red bull for extra punch or even icing sugar flowers for pink cameras, lol

Gavin Roe
22nd January, 2014 @ 04:17 pm PST

Enzymes acting on carbohydrates. It's biochemistry at it's most basic.

Oxidation of carbohydrates produces energy, water and carbon dioxide.

Not very "green"!!

22nd January, 2014 @ 05:29 pm PST

Water as a byproduct... "Excuse me, I have to take my phone to the little chips room."

Gregg Eshelman
22nd January, 2014 @ 07:41 pm PST

in reply to jonothan:

"Oh, great. That means the either the price of sugar will become astronomical, or each fuel cell will require its own particular formulation of sugar in order to refill it (think proprietary ink)." Aha, but once the hacker (mod it, build it yourself) community hears and figures out this stuff someone will no doubt build an opensource version. You can bet on that.

22nd January, 2014 @ 07:55 pm PST

@nutcase: so it releases carbon which is recycled and reabsorbed when you grow more plants for sugar. Very green or at least carbon neutral (apart from farming practices..).

22nd January, 2014 @ 08:00 pm PST

it is good, but why not just have more economical cars? The technology is already there. I can just imagine some of friends having to own a sugar mill to run their 5.7 liter trucks. My car in Car in China is a 1.4 liter MG and I move 5 people up and down hills without a problem ohh and with the AC on.

Roger Silverio
22nd January, 2014 @ 08:49 pm PST

@ Bob Ehresman - Beat me to it! It is good to know that someone, somewhere, has as poor a sense of humour as me.

I love this sugar idea. It clearly wouldn't be possible to run every portable device on it, given the finite nature of sugar production, but I bet there are plenty of great applications for it. I bet other less palatable things could be used too.

Some exciting things are happening at the moment in the field of non-polluting and much-less-polluting electricity generation and storage. It feels like a tipping point is about to be reached. Great to see!

23rd January, 2014 @ 03:22 am PST

When beer is brewed it produces large amounts of CO2. Why not add a stainless steel presurised brewing system to an compressed-air powered car. If it's not enough CO2 to get to where you want to go, just open the tap on the bumper and drain some of the waste product into a mug and soon you won't care.

Dave B13
23rd January, 2014 @ 11:41 am PST

Enzymes acting on carbohydrates also usually stinks.

23rd January, 2014 @ 02:05 pm PST

@Jay Finke:

who told you sugar is not explosive?

Graham Conroy Harris
23rd January, 2014 @ 09:23 pm PST

Sugar refining is an energy intense process. it would only be feasable if the electricity was sustainable. Malto dextrin is expensive to make. Enzymes only work in a homeostatic environment around 37C. That is why we use inanimate catalysts. Motors driven by the battery would raise the temperature to high. Ina real world. Dont talk about the waxes and protiens in the sugar that must be removed.

Sorry but stick with what the scientists currently agree is best practice and support this until what might be best practice is technologically robust.

happy year of the Equine.

analogue girl
24th January, 2014 @ 04:14 pm PST

The article discussing Dr Zhang's work is here "http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2014/140121/ncomms4026/full/ncomms4026.html". It is basic biochemical process similar in ideology to the way energy is produced within living cells.

To those that say since it is producing CO2 as a by product of reaction and is therefore not green, I point out that almost every Watt of power used is used is comes from carbon based reactions (coal, petrochemicals, wood, ...) which have a very low efficiency based on energy produced versus carbon released usually in the 25% range, then there is the cost of refining the Lithium plus the final cost of cleaning up the Lithium when one is finished with the battery. This process would be at least 80% efficient plus this fuel cell can be disposed of easily.

The energy density is about 10 times that of a Li-ion battery. That does not mean it is good for all applications. While the cell will hold far more power, based on the suggested uses, it would appear it must release the power slower or damage would occur. Remember this is a biochemical process. Enzymes can be cooked and then they are no longer enzymes. The suggested uses are low power systems such as portable electronics. This system, without a great deal of modification (possibly many anodes and cathodes) will not be suitable for systems such as electric car.

As to the suggestions that it is expensive energy wise to collect sugars, no. It has been done for centuries. Long before the industrial revolution. The extraction of maltodextrin (starch) also predates the industrial revolution can easily be created from wheat, rice, potato, corn, ... It is converted from amylose and amylopectin which while is present in all plant products is especially plentiful in the ones we use for foods and call starches. Pulverize, add water, add heat, let cook, and voila maltodextrin. You could actually make it in your kitchen.

As to proteins and oils in the basic slurry, yes, they are there. Those are most easily removed using filtration, diffusion, and/or osmosis (yes, I know osmosis is a type of diffusion, and diffusion is a type of filtering). It may also be possible to develop active membranes that transport the oils and proteins to one side.

Lastly it may be possible to create plants that actually product maltodextrin as their starch to start with eliminating all energy costs save for extraction. (I am not a fan of genetic manipulation but it is becoming an agricultural fact of life now).

The fact is this technology if developed would be very green compared to current technologies. At the very best its greatest environmental impact will be the creation of the basic fuel cell.

My biggest worry is how businesses would implement the fuel cells. They talk of them working like refilling ink jet printer cartridges. Those are have little chips in them that calculate how much ink you have used. Mine says I have used all my color ink. I only do black and white and have NEVER printed a color image. My printer is now dead until I spend about $30 for a cartridge to replace a full cartridge. Will they include a little chip on the fuel cells?

27th January, 2014 @ 01:54 am PST

coresnake First, laboratory to market is at least 10 years, usually 20.

Second, have you tried running any of your newer devices on a power pack made of carbon zinc cells? Batteries do improve continuously, today's rechargeable Li ion cells are much higher density, last longer and recharge far more times than their predecessors. They are also much safer and less toxic than the NiCds they replaced.

Environmentally, it is still a problem, since growing sugar takes arable land away from food production and usually means huge monocultural agriculture.

High density super capacitors have a brighter future, rechargeable faster than you can refill a fuel cell, more recharges than any other potential tech, and higher energy density.

Charles Barnard
28th January, 2014 @ 12:57 pm PST

Can i buy this bio cell battery????

Mudassar Bashir
19th October, 2014 @ 02:51 am PDT
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