The Secret to a Better Battery Might Just Be Floating in Thin Air

Nitrogen makes up more than three quarters of our air, and researchers in China have successfully harnessed the gas to power a battery.

A battery that relies on the most common gas in Earth’s atmosphere may be a more environmentally friendly way to produce and store power, but there are some bugs to work out, Chinese scientists say.

Researchers at the Changchun Institute of Applied Chemistry, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, report that they were able to use nitrogen to briefly produce power from an experimental battery cell. Nitrogen makes up more than three-quarters of our air, but trying to harness it in a battery is difficult. Nitrogen atoms bond tightly to each other, and getting them to react with other elements requires some coaxing.

The Changchun team injected pure nitrogen into a battery that used a lithium anode and a cathode made from a composite of carbon, zirconium oxide, and the rare-Earth metal ruthenium. Between them, a lithium-carbon-sulfur compound acted as an electrolyte.

The nitrogen bonded with the lithium through an ether-based catalyst to produce energy and was released when the battery discharged. The resulting reaction produced electricity comparable to other lithium-gas batteries, but without the high-temperature, high-pressure processes needed to make those cells.

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The reaction proved that the concept would work, providing “a promising green candidate” for future energy storage. A lithium-nitrogen battery that could match the output of current storage cells would also be an environmental plus, since it could be produced with one of the most abundant elements on Earth. It also could work without the fossil-fuel intensive process that’s historically used to produce nitrogen compounds, Xin-Bo Zhang, the paper’s senior author, said.

A breakthrough in batteries could be a huge boost to clean energy, allowing wind and solar power systems to save more of the power they generate for use at night or on calm days. The field is drawing intense interest, and scientists have been experimenting with a variety of materials, from micro-thin carbon sheets known as graphene to cellular lattices derived from seaweed. This study was funded by the Chinese government, which has invested heavily in renewable energy in a bid to bring down the country’s fossil fuel emissions and notorious smog.

The catch is that battery life was limited, because the process quickly corroded the cathode and anode — better known as the positive and negative ends of the battery. While the proof-of-concept study was encouraging, it adds that developing key elements of the battery — the cathode, anode, and electrolytes – will require “intense efforts,” the study concluded.

“At present, the research on lithium-nitrogen battery systems is still at the initial stage,” Zhang said. So don’t look for lithium-nitrogen batteries in stores until those materials problems are resolved, he added.

The findings were published in Chem, a sister publication of the biochemical journal Cell.

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