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Sweet! Scientists developing sugar-filled batteries

Researchers at Virginia Tech say sugar could be the key to cheap, biodegradable batteries that can be refilled.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
Scientists showing sugar battery
Y.H. Percival Zhang (right)and Zhiguang Zhu display a sugar battery. Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Sugar gives humans energy, so why not batteries, too? Researchers at Virginia Tech are developing what amounts to fuel cells, but with a sugar solution rather than hydrogen. Other attempts at sugar batteries have been made, but this one has an energy density that blows other versions out of the water. That means it can run for a much longer time before refueling is necessary.

"Sugar is a perfect energy storage compound in nature. So it's only logical that we try to harness this natural power in an environmentally friendly way to produce a battery," says Y.H. Percival Zhang, associate professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech.

At its most basic level, the battery combines maltodextrin with air, which results in electricity and water byproducts. The innovation here centers around Zhang's use of enzymes.

Here's the fuller explanation courtesy of Virginia Tech: "Zhang and his colleagues constructed a non-natural synthetic enzymatic pathway that strip all charge potentials from the sugar to generate electricity in an enzymatic fuel cell. Then, low-cost biocatalyst enzymes are used as catalyst instead of costly platinum, which is typically used in conventional batteries."

The first question to pop up in your mind is probably whether these batteries could be edible. The short answer is that you don't want to snack on batteries, even ones that are powered by sugar.

The sugar battery could be a staple in electronic devices within just a few years, if development goes according to schedule. It has the potential to keep a considerable amount of battery waste out of landfills. How sweet that would be.

Sugar battery
This battery has a sweet tooth. Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences