A long-lasting battery from wood-grain alcohol

Researchers get a glimpse of atoms as they seek to create new, refillable batteries for laptops.
Written by Melissa Mahony, Contributor on

During my recent stint at jury duty, a problem arose: my laptop's obnoxiously short battery life. I had 7 hours to kill within Brooklyn's wi-fi enabled jurors' lounge. Present were 4 outlets and about 200 other dutiful citizens, just as bored and hungry for electricity as I was.

I am often guilty of being an "outlet vampire," a person who sucks electricity from some public space—a cafe, an airport, a federal court.

But researchers at the University of New Mexico want to kill us vampires, not with wooden stakes but with wood-grain alcohol, or methanol. They hope to design a long-lasting, and possibly refillable, battery system that would convert methanol to hydrogen. A fuel cell would then generate energy from the hydrogen. When out of juice, just pop in a new methanol cartridge.

Speaking recently of the research at a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) seminar series was Abhaya Datye, director of UNM's Center for Micro-Engineered Materials. According to PNNL, Datye explained that they first need to find a catalyst able to efficiently transform methanol to hydrogen. Datye's prime suspect? A mix of two affordable metals: palladium and zinc.

The palladium-zinc combo can spur the reaction the proposed battery would require, but more information on how the metals behave on the molecular level is needed. Examining the surface of the catalyst via a transmission electron microscope, Datye and his team have so far found two structures created by zinc and palladium atoms.

Which of these formations would draw a better methanol-to-hydrogen transaction is unknown, but the discovery might lead to creating more efficient catalysts in the future.

The researchers also hope to determine how the shape of zinc oxide crystals influence reaction speeds. PNNL quotes Professor Datye:

By choosing the right synthesis conditions, you can get surfaces you want. This includes making thin plates or sheets of zinc oxide.

Whatever size and shape the winning catalyst is and however the battery's development unfolds, one thing is certain: I won't be called to jury duty for another 8 years. By then, there will hopefully be some solution to help kick my outlet dependency problem. Who knows, I just may be able replace it with wood-grain alcohol dependency.

Images: PNNL and Oak Ridge National Laboratory
: Physorg

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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