Dec. 1, 2016

UCalgary chemists develop a safer, cheaper generation of batteries for consumers

Researchers create compound for organic, non-toxic battery
University of Calgary PhD student Monika Stolar and professor Thomas Baumgartner are part of a group in the Department of Chemistry working to create carbon-based batteries. Their batteries are non-toxic, lightweight, and considerably more stable than those with metallic ion bases.

Monika Stolar and Thomas Baumgartner are part of a group working to create carbon-based batteries.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

With exploding cell phones making the news lately, many are likely wondering if a better battery is possible.

In the Department of Chemistry at the University of Calgary, professor Thomas Baumgartner’s research group is working on tackling that question, by developing a carbon-based battery whose organic components make it a considerably more stable and sustainable alternative. The group develops materials for sustainable energy solutions, converting energy into different forms, storing that energy and using it in various processes. One branch of the research is devoted to "organic" electronics, so named for their addition of carbon-based (organic), plastic materials as an active electronic component. “We’re using these instead of expensive metals,” he explains.

New compound paves way for efficient, non-toxic batteries

Building upon an organic phosphorus compound and work started by a PhD student in his lab several years back, Baumgartner says his group has now been able to produce a powerful iteration of carbon-based batteries. They recently published their findings in a paper in Advanced Energy Materials.

Because the battery they have created has opened a pathway towards ultimately avoiding the use of more volatile and potentially toxic materials such as lithium, mercury, cobalt, or cadmium typically found in batteries, the innovative product is not only cheaper to produce but is non-toxic, lightweight, and considerably more stable. In a world connected by smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers, these features are highly desirable to the everyday consumer.

Adding to its appeal, Monika Stolar, a PhD student in Baumgartner’s lab, says their battery compound also retains its health, even with frequent usage. By hooking up the batteries to a special machine and cycling them through their charging and discharging cycles, the group achieved more than 200 cycles. “This is really good for an organic material and very promising for us,” Stolar explains. “For example, a computer battery starts to degrade after a year or so, and you can see that the health of the battery isn’t that good. Our batteries are staying at nearly 100 per cent of their original health.”

“It would be ideal if we could implement these into the next generation of technology,” says Baumgartner. “The storage and battery components are top-of-mind at this point in time. Most batteries are lithium ion-based; however, because we’re using carbon-based plastic materials, we don’t have the metals that can interact with air or moisture and ignite.

"Particularly with the recent news, I think it’s time to start thinking about alternatives.”

Safer batteries for consumers only a few steps away

Possible next steps for the group involve improving the specific capacity of the material — or, how many electron charges can be stored per mass — so that it can possibly be taken to market.

For batteries to become commercially viable, they need to reach a capacity of 200 milliampere hours per gram. The Baumgartner group’s material averages 90 milliamperes. “To optimize the tools to do that, you have to make them lighter or able to accept more charges while keeping the mass constant. These are our next steps,” Baumgartner says.

He compares their accomplishment to reaching the first base camp on a climb up Mount Everest; making the batteries more powerful will propel the group closer to the summit: the creation of a commercially viable, fully organic battery.

Stolar says that, in principle, their battery compound would be easy to mass-produce. “We’ve optimized the synthesis for ourselves, so we can make a relatively large quantity,” she says. “Now, it’s just a matter of applying those materials into an actual device.”

Funding for the research was made possible by an NSERC grant to Baumgartner, and NSERC Postgraduate Scholarships-Doctoral and Alberta Innovates Technology Futures scholarships to Stolar.