Researchers Discover Potential Solution to Lithium Batteries

( – Researchers are cautiously optimistic about a new discovery for battery technology that could eliminate the need for lithium and cobalt in advanced batteries for electric vehicles and other devices.

Chitin is a naturally produced hard material that makes up exoskeletons for crustaceans and insects. Thousands of tons of it are discarded by the restaurant industry every year from crabs and lobster remains. A University of Maryland team from its Center for Material Innovation has made a promising new breakthrough where they use a combination of chitin and zinc to create a new type of battery.

The shells from crabs were treated with a chemical process including a breakdown by acetic acid, the key component of vinegar, to form a thin gel-like electrolytic membrane capable of retaining and releasing an electric charge.

The chitin-zinc material was found to retain 99.7% efficiency after 400 hours of use, suggesting the batteries could be recharged and used regularly like the current generation of lithium-ion batteries. The group of scientists published their findings in the journal Cell. Another benefit of the material is that it can degrade quickly and naturally leaving behind biodegradable products that can be safely recycled by soil organisms or in fertilizer.

Standard lithium-ion batteries can take hundreds of years to degrade; this technology could also mitigate the need for environmentally damaging lithium mining. Mining lithium is controversial, expensive, and incredibly lucrative. Mining the mineral in Nevada is threatening endangered species and Native American lands. Cobalt mining in the Congo is comparable to slavery. The demand for these minerals could be drastically decreased by the addition of a new material that could be produced or refined cheaply from crab shells.

University of Nottingham Professor Graham Newton spoke with The Guardian about the discovery, saying he was cautiously optimistic about the finding. He did warn that promising research results and practical wide-scale application represent a significant gap that remains to be crossed by intrepid entrepreneurs and materials scientists.

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