How soccer ball-shaped molecules supercharge zinc-air batteries

This graphic illustrates a zinc-air battery can using a fullerene-metalloporphyrin co-crystal as an oxygen reduction reaction catalyst. Credit: Carbon Future, Tsinghua University Press.

In the world of batteries, zinc-air batteries are like the hidden gems that could change how we power everything from gadgets to cars.

They’re cheap and pack a lot of power because they use oxygen from the air to work.

But there’s been a big problem: getting the oxygen to react properly has been tough, making these batteries less efficient than they could be.

Enter a team of scientists led by Professor Fang-Fang Li from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China.

They’ve found a clever way to make zinc-air batteries work better, using something inspired by the shape of a soccer ball, known as fullerene, along with a special molecule called metalloporphyrin.

Fullerene is a form of carbon where the atoms are arranged in a ball. On its own, it’s not great at conducting electricity, which is essential for battery performance. But the scientists discovered a method to turn fullerene into crystals that are much better at moving electrons around. They did this by dissolving fullerene in two different liquids and letting crystals form where the liquids meet.

Then, they took it a step further by mixing these fullerene crystals with metalloporphyrin to create a supermolecule. This wasn’t just any mixture; they experimented with heating it to different temperatures and tweaking the process to see what worked best.

Their experiments showed something exciting: the supermolecule heated to 800°C after being mixed in a special way worked the best. It was like finding the secret ingredient for a recipe that makes a dish go from good to great.

To prove their point, the researchers made a zinc-air battery using their fullerene-metalloporphyrin supermolecule as a key part of the battery. And the results were impressive. This battery didn’t just work well; it worked well for a long time, showing that it could be a game-changer for making zinc-air batteries a practical choice for all sorts of uses.

What’s so special about this? For starters, zinc-air batteries have a lot of potential because they’re cheaper and more environmentally friendly than many other types of batteries. Improving their efficiency and lifespan with the fullerene-metalloporphyrin supermolecule means we could start seeing them used more widely, from powering our electronic devices to electric vehicles and even storing energy on a large scale.

This breakthrough isn’t just about making better batteries; it’s about pushing forward towards a future where clean, affordable energy could be more accessible to everyone.

The work of Professor Li and his team opens up new possibilities for how we store and use energy, bringing us one step closer to that brighter, more sustainable future.