Australian engineers developed the world's first functioning rechargable proton battery, taking batteries several giant steps toward cheaper, safer, adn more environmentally-friendly batteries.
If scaled up, the proton batteries have the ability to compete with the ubiquitous lithium-ion battery, according to RMIT professor John Andrews.
“Our latest advance is a crucial step towards cheap, sustainable proton batteries that can help meet our future energy needs without further damaging our already fragile environment,” Andrews said in a press statement.
Reusable lithium-ion batteries like the ones in nearly all smartphones are an improvement on older forms of batteries. However, by their nature, lithium-ion batteries are dangerous. The end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 saw Samsung struggle with exploding batteries in a handful of their most popular smartphones. This is because if the separator that prevents short circuiting is breached, then the electrodes getting too close to each other can quickly lead to overheating.
The RMIT design would remove that danger considerably. Currently, the prototype uses a carbon electrode to store hydrogen and reversibel fuel cells to produce electricity. Andrews said that it's this carbon electrode and proton combination that gives this new battery a slight push above lithium-ion counterparts.
"As the world moves towards inherently-variable renewable energy to reduce greenhouse emissions and tackle climate change, requirements for electrical energy storage will be gargantuan," he noted. "The proton battery is one among many potential contributors towards meeting this enormous demand for energy storage. Powering batteries with protons has the potential to be more economical than using lithium ions, which are made from scare resources."
Here's how the battery works. Carbon in the electrode bonds with the protons found whenever water is split via the power supply's electrons. Those protons pass through the reversible fuel cell again to form water as it mixes with oxygen and then generates power.
The entire energy conversion and storage process is emission free, according to the team.
“Carbon, which is the primary resource used in our proton battery, is abundant and cheap compared to both metal hydrogen-storage alloys, and the lithium needed for rechargeable lithium ion batteries.”
The researchers reported that the maximum cell voltage was 1.2 volts, so the system itself is far from being optimized. However, the energy per unit mass is already comparable with other lithium-ion batteries currently on the market and in phones. The process also gives this proton battery a much higher efficiency than other hydrogen systems. The researchers noted that they've effectively eliminated the energy loss associated with current hydrogen battery technology.
The team is looking to scale up their research, improve the battery's performance, and leverage powerful materials like graphene in order to further put this proton battery to its fullest potential.
“Future work will now focus on further improving performance and energy density through use of atomically-thin layered carbon-based materials such as graphene, with the target of a proton battery that is truly competitive with lithium ion batteries firmly in sight,” Andrews said.