Every 72 litres of petroleum we refine leaves behind 230g of sulphur byproduct — far more than we can even pretend to have use for. Luckily, some ingenious researchers at the University of Arizona may have devised a solution that transforms the rancid yellow element into a new breed of battery.
Lithium-ion batteries are the de facto rechargeable energy storage system today — powering everything from mobile phones to 787s — but there is a limit to how much energy it can hold (and, as anyone with a dead phone can tell you, it’s never nearly enough). However, a new process described in the journal Nature Chemistry dubbed “inverse vulcanisation” could usher in a new generation of secondary batteries that run on sulphur rather than lithium.
Researchers from the University of Arizona, led by Jeffrey Pyun and collaborating with teams from US, South Korean and German institutions, created the new polymers from liquid sulfur mixed with a small portion of an unnamed additive — the opposite of the vulcanisation process where sulphur is the additive, hence the name. The sulphur polymer is already attracting attention from battery and automobile manufacturers in use as cathode material. Doing so could revolutionise Li-S battery technology, which, while it provides superior specific capacities and lower self-discharge rates to Li-ion, the solid sulphur cathodes currently used only last a few recharges.
There’s no word on when or if the technology will ever reach market, but you’ll know it when you smell it.
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