The portabello mushroom: Great with grilled onions and ketchup, sure, but this fungus can do a lot more than console vegetarians at barbecues. In the future, the humble portabello mushroom might power everything from our smartphones to our cars.
The anodes in the lithium ion batteries that charge our devices are made of graphite, a material that's expensive to produce and leaves a trail of toxic waste along the way. But as researchers are now discovering, portabello mushrooms — biodegradable by nature — might do the job even better. Their molecular structure is sturdy enough to store energy while porous enough to enable efficient energy transfer.
And while graphite slowly decays due to electrical damage, the high potassium salt concentration in mushroom skin actually improves its capacity over time.
"With battery materials like this, future cell phones may see an increase in run time after many uses, rather than a decrease," Brennan Campbell, a materials science graduate student at UC Riverside said in a statement.
Diagram showing how mushrooms are turned into a material for battery anodes. Image Credit: UCR News
Campbell is part a team of engineers that's just developed the world's first fungal battery anode, built of the heat-treated skin of portabello mushrooms. The concept, detailed today in Nature Scientific Reports, probably sounds a bit funky, but we ought to get used to the idea: This is but one of many ways that fungi can help build our future. Whether it's feeding the planet during a global food shortage, cleaning up our environment, or reinforcing our infrastructure, nature's decomposers are full of untapped potential.
And when it comes to batteries, we're unlocking that potential just in time. Analysts predict that by 2020, we'll need to fabricate nearly 816,466,266kg of raw graphite for EV anodes alone. If mushroom farms can help reduce that demand, well, sign me up for the leftovers.
Top image via Shutterstock