Could Organic Polymer Batteries Save Us From Lithium?

Could Organic Polymer Batteries Save Us From Lithium?
Image: Zachariah Kelly/Gizmodo Australia

Researchers at Flinders University have made huge steps towards the production of an “organic” polymer battery by doubling its energy storage capacity.

The batteries that we use today in most of our electronics are made up of rare earth elements – cobalt and lithium, in particular. The materials are, as you can guess, rare and we need to mine to get them. While there are many efforts to get more use out of lithium-ion batteries, there are also efforts to look at alternatives.

That’s where a concept like an organic polymer battery comes in, which could theoretically be a more environmentally friendly type of energy storage that uses polymers made from organic compounds.

Together with Chinese collaborators, researchers from Flinders University have created two-electron storage in “organic radical batteries” by using a catalysis strategy, effectively doubling the capacity of what was previously considered to be the high point of energy storage in the battery type.

“Catalysis has been widely used in lithium-based batteries such as lithium-oxygen batteries and lithium-sulphur batteries to improve their energy and power performance,” says Doctor Zhongfan Jia, a senior lecturer in chemistry at the Flinders University Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology.

The aim of the research is to one day cut down on toxic waste in landfill, which is where many lithium-ion batteries end up if not disposed of correctly (reminder: please dispose of your phone correctly). One day, the technology could lead to a reduced reliance on lithium and cobalt mining, if polymer batteries begin to be used commonly.

Up until now, the uptake of polymer batteries has been prevented by their storage limitations, however, this could be coming to an end with research like this. While previous research indicated that only one electron could be reversibly stored in materials (providing a maximum capacity of 110 mAh/g), this development doubles this electron amount, bumping storage up quite a bit. This comes after research into the voltage of organic batteries.

“This battery can deliver a capacity of 175 mAh/g, which is comparable to the commercialised lithium-ion battery, making a step closer to the practical use of ORBs,” added Jia.

“Our next goal is to combine these advances to develop organic batteries that can be implemented in consumer electronics.”

Applications for the technology include small electronics like smartphones, however, development is still underway.

Perhaps one day, in a truly idyllic, sustainable world, we’ll be able to power our electronics without having to rely on massive amounts of lithium and cobalt.

You can read all about the polymer battery research from Flinders University in ACS Energy Letters.