Generating electricity from ice: a cool new discovery

Credit: PLOS ONE (2023).

Last year, researchers from the US and Canada made an exciting discovery: they created electrical batteries using ice!

While the electricity output is currently small—just 0.1 milliwatt—this breakthrough might lead to great things in the future.

The team worked over two seasons to develop these special ice-based batteries.

Dr. Daniel Helman and Dr. Matthew Retallack met in 2015 at a conference in Montreal, Canada. Dr. Helman was presenting his ideas about using ice for solar panels, and Dr. Retallack was discussing the topic.

They quickly realized they shared a passion for research and started working together on different prototypes.

The winning design uses acid to create a difference in pH between two layers of ice, along with a few common additives.

In ice, the most mobile charge carrier is the proton. When there is a pH difference between two layers of ice, protons travel from one layer to the other, generating electricity.

In their experiments, the researchers used table salt, kaolinite clay, and monopotassium phosphate to help donate or receive charged particles. They also used muriatic acid (HCl), a mesh screen, and sheet aluminum as electrodes.

All the materials used in these experiments are commonly available and considered safe. This makes one wonder what could be achieved with more optimized materials.

Additionally, adding photosensitive particles could potentially create dye-sensitized solar cells. Early experiments with dye-sensitized solar cells used chlorophyll from spinach to change local pH in response to sunlight.

Although the electrical output from these ice batteries is small, the potential is significant. Large areas of land at high latitudes, like fields and lakes, could be used to generate electricity in a safe and environmentally friendly way. This could help us transition away from fossil fuels.

This discovery also provides insights into one of science’s big questions: where did life come from?

Some scientists believe life started in small ponds near volcanic fields or mid-ocean ridges. However, RNA, a key molecule for life, gets diluted without a membrane, making it hard to act as a catalyst.

An icy setting solves this problem by keeping RNA concentrated in small regions, like on the ice of a comet or meteorite. This could explain how life began on icy meteorites or during an early “Snowball Earth” period.

Dr. Helman is currently a visiting assistant professor of Environmental Studies at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Dr. Retallack conducted the experiments while at Carleton University in Toronto.

Their discovery of generating electricity from ice is a fascinating step forward in both renewable energy and our understanding of life’s origins.