Bees could engineer the future of Energy Storage

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Pollen is the bane of hay fever sufferers everywhere; however, we may soon see it in a different light as new research suggests that bee pollen may hold the key to clean energy storage.

The research published by a team at Purdue University has found that bee pollen can be used as an efficient and renewable source for anodes in lithium-ion batteries. The team also tested pollen sourced directly from cattails which yielded even more encouraging results.

Energy storage is becoming an increasing global problem.  Virtually all of the world’s electronic items run on some kind of battery in various shapes and sizes. As our electronic goods become more advanced and powerful the demand grows for similar breakthroughs in battery technology – particular in areas of efficiency and economy.

The green energy movement and the rise of solar energy, wind energy, and electric vehicles has added a whole new scale to the global thirst for energy storage. There is a need to not only develop better performing batteries but find more accessible and sustainable materials with which to build them.

Most of the investment and research into new battery technology is centered on the battery’s anode – the electrode that stores the lithium ions as the battery is charging.

Conventional batteries have two electrodes, called an anode and a cathode.  Graphite serves as the anode in many of today’s lithium ion batteries, something that is neither cheap or friendly to the environment. Graphite anodes have a limited storage capacity and preparing the material for use involves treatment with chemicals such as hydrofluoric and sulfuric acids, and results in hazardous waste.

Now back to the bees: The basic theory behind using pollen is that the miniscule size and complexity of pollen particles would make them an ideal material for energy storage – once they have been reduced to relatively pure carbon particles.

The research team was able to reduce the natural bee pollen and natural cattail pollen to a carbonaceous material (simply a material that contains carbon) by heating the pollens in a chamber containing argon gas using a procedure called pyrolysis – yielding pure carbon in the original shape of the pollen particles.

These newly carbonised pollen particles were further processed, or “activated,” by heating at lower temperature – about 300 degrees celsius – in the presence of oxygen, forming pores in the carbon structures to increase their energy-storage capacity.

This means nature has produced perfect energy storage in the form of pollen – what’s more it has billions of factories, in the form of plants, creating more and more of the stuff all the time.

“Our findings have demonstrated that renewable pollens could produce carbon architectures for anode applications in energy storage devices,” said Vilas Pol, an associate professor in the School of Chemical Engineering and the School of Materials Engineering at Purdue University.

You can find the full energy storage study here, under the title, “From Allergens to Battery Anodes: Nature-Inspired, Pollen Derived Carbon Architectures for Room- and Elevated- Temperature Li-ion Storage.

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