Take some metal scraps from the junkyard; put them in a glass jar with a common household chemical; and, voilà, you have a high-performance battery.
“Imagine that the tons of metal waste discarded every year could be used to provide energy storage for the renewable energy grid of the future, instead of becoming a burden for waste processing plants and the environment,” said Cary Pint, assistant professor at Vanderbilt University.
To make such a future possible, researchers used scraps of steel and brass – two of the most commonly discarded materials – to create the world’s first steel-brass battery.
The battery can store energy at levels comparable to lead-acid batteries while charging and discharging at rates comparable to ultra-fast charging supercapacitors.
The finding is published in the journal ACS Energy Letters.
The secret to unlocking this performance is anodization, a common chemical treatment used to give aluminum a durable and decorative finish.
When scraps of steel and brass are anodized using a common household chemical and residential electrical current, the researchers found that the metal surfaces are restructured into nanometer-sized networks of metal oxide that can store and release energy when reacting with a water-based liquid electrolyte.
The team determined that these nanometer domains explain the fast charging behavior that they observed, as well as the battery’s exceptional stability.
They tested it for 5,000 consecutive charging cycles – the equivalent of over 13 years of daily charging and discharging – and found that it retained more than 90 percent of its capacity.
Unlike the recent bout of exploding lithium-ion smartphone batteries, the steel-brass batteries use non-flammable water electrolytes that contain potassium hydroxide, an inexpensive salt used in laundry detergent.
The research team believe that this breakthrough could mean for how batteries are made in the future.
The Vanderbilt team drew inspiration from the “Baghdad Battery,” a simple device dating back to the first century BC, which some believe is the world’s oldest battery.
It consisted of a ceramic terracotta pot, a copper sheet and an iron rod, which were found along with traces of electrolyte.
Although this interpretation of the artifacts is controversial, the simple way they were constructed influenced the research team’s design.
The team’s next step is to build a full-scale prototype battery suitable for use in energy-efficient smart homes.
Citation: Pint C, et al. (2016). From the Junkyard to the Power Grid: Ambient Processing of Scrap Metals into Nanostructured Electrodes for Ultrafast Rechargeable Batteries. ACS Energy Letters, 1: 1034-1041. DOI: 10.1021/acsenergylett.6b00295.
Figure legend: This Knowridge.com image is credited to Daniel Dubois/Vanderbilt University.