Pollen – the powdery substance comprising pollen grains – may help develop better batteries in the future, a new study suggests.
In the study – published on Friday (Feb. 5) in the online journal Scientific Reports – scientists at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana have found that the unique microstructures of pollen grains could be used to develop a more effective energy storage unit.
Batteries are made of an electrolyte, electrodes, and a separator – each battery has two electrodes. One of them is the anode, or the negatively charged end of the battery, and the other is the cathode, or the positively charged end of the battery. The terminal marked positive (cathode) is at a higher electrical potential energy than is the terminal marked negative (anode). To create a current of electricity, the electrolyte runs through the anode and the cathode, enabling the chemical reactions to be completed at the separate terminals.
Scientists are now trying to improve lithium-ion batteries that are typically used in cell phones and laptops. Those types of batteries have a cathode made of lithium cobalt oxide, and an anode made of carbon (most of the times graphite).
Vilas Pol, lead author of the new study and an associate professor in the School of Chemical Engineering and the School of Materials Engineering at Purdue University, said that the electrolyte that runs through a lithium-ion battery is made of lithium salts.
If pollen can be turned into a into a carbon anode with a better microstructure than graphite, that may help scientists develop a battery with the ability to store more energy. For the study, the scientists used pollen from cattails (a plant also known as Typha latifolia), and from honeybees.
According to Pol, he and his colleagues turned the pollen into carbon by heating a section of cattails pollen and honeybee pollen to 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit (about 600 degrees Celsius). To stop the carbon from burning up, the space that they used to heat the pollen was filled with argon gas.
The pollen-based carbon pieces were then reheated to generate more empty pockets in the pollen structure where energy would be stored.
After testing the pollen-based carbons in the lithium-ion batteries, the scientists found that the cattail pollen-based carbon was able to store more energy, compared with the bee pollen-based carbon – that is because cattail pollen has a more uniform structure.
The next step is for Pol and his colleagues to develop a better cathode that goes with the pollen-based carbon anode.
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