Seaweed Could Provide a Powerful Boost to Next-Gen Batteries

Carbon-based compounds found in seaweed could improve the storage capacity of batteries, helping renewable energy sources like wind and solar become more reliable.

A carbon compound derived from seaweed might help improve the batteries you’ll be using in the coming years while doing less to harm the environment, researchers reported Wednesday.

Carbon-based compounds are the focus of extensive research into energy storage, where a breakthrough could make renewable energy sources like solar and wind power more consistent. Much of the focus has been on compounds such as graphene, a relatively new material with a strong ability to conduct electricity.

But Dongjiang Yang, a chemist at China’s Qingdao University, said the structure of that oceanic algae can be combined with metal to provide a better material — and one that can be produced sustainably.

"We wanted to produce carbon-based materials via a really 'green' pathway,” Yang said in a statement announcing the discovery. “Given the renewability of seaweed, we chose seaweed extract as a precursor and template to synthesize hierarchical porous carbon materials."

Yang worked with a team drawn from Qingdao, from his old job at Australia’s Griffith University and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to produce cobalt-alginate nanofibers with a durable structure similar to an egg box. That fiber can be used to boost the performance of batteries and capacitors — electrical devices that store and release power in many electronic devices.

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Yang is presenting the findings at this week’s American Chemical Society meeting in San Francisco. Their preliminary findings were published by an ACS journal in 2015.

It’s not the first time scientists have looked to seaweed to build a better battery. But Yang’s team says they have been able to significantly enhance the amount of power stored per gram in lithium-ion batteries using the material they produced. If manufactured to high enough quality, it could potentially double the range of electric cars, they reported.

However, the discovery is a long way from being turned into a marketable product. Yang said it would take far more than the 20,000 tons of alginate that’s currently able to be harvested each year to produce the material needed on an industrial scale.

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