The standard battery for gadgets is lithium-ion, which stores a lot of energy for its weight. But lithium is a rare Earth element with most of the deposits located in

Chile, Argentina, China and Australia. This is one reason the batteries in the average

laptop are so expensive.

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Lowering the cost of batteries is one reason researchers have been exploring other materials. A team at the Tokyo University of

Science, led by Shinichi Komaba, have been looking at sodium-based batteries,

using sodium ions as the cathode (positive side) and carbon from ordinary sugar

as the anode (negative side).

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To get the carbon from the sugar (sucrose), the scientists burned it in

the absence of oxygen at a temperature of 1,800 to 2,700 degrees — hot enough to

melt cast iron at the upper end. That produces a hard black carbon powder of

high quality. In this form, the sodium-sucrose battery stored 20 percent more energy

than one made with conventional carbon.

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It will be some time before such a battery is

commercialized, but if it's successful, it will mean that batteries can be made of

materials that have essentially no supply problem. While lithium is recycled,

it is only on a limited scale. Sodium, by contrast, is everywhere (including in

table salt), as is sucrose.

One of the issues with sodium-based batteries is that they

don't survive as many charge cycles as lithium-ion batteries do. Improving that

will be the next step. Komaba told that it will likely be about five

years before we see the first sodium batteries on the shelves. 

Credit: Corbis Images