Now, it’s not exactly news that sugar is an excellent energy source. As a culture we’ve probably known about it since before we were Homo sapiens. The problem is, unless you’re a living organism or some kind of incendiary device, extracting that energy is difficult. In nature, an enzymatic pathway is used — a production line of tailor-made enzymes that meddle with the glucose molecules until they become ATP. Because it’s easy enough to produce enzymes in large quantities, researchers have tried to create fuel cells that use artificial “metabolism” to break down glucose into electricity (biobatteries), but it has historically proven very hard to find the right pathway for maximum efficiency and to keep the enzymes in the right place over a long period of time.
|A diagram of the enzymatic fuel cell. The little Pac-Man things are enzymes.|
The Virginia Tech biobattery uses 13 enzymes, plus air (it’s an air-breathing biobattery), to produce nearly 24 electrons from a single glucose unit. This equates to a power output of 0.8 mW/cm, current density of 6 mA/cm, and energy storage density of 596 Ah/kg. This last figure is impressive, at roughly 10 times the energy density of the lithium-ion batteries in your mobile devices. [Research paper: doi:10.1038/ncomms4026 - "A high-energy-density sugar biobattery based on a synthetic enzymatic pathway"]
If Zhang’s biobatteries pan out, you might soon be recharging your smartphone by pouring in a solution of 15% maltodextrin. That battery would not only be very safe (it produces water and electricity), but very cheap to run and very green. This seems to fit in perfectly with Zhang’s homepage, which talks about how his main goals in life are replacing crude oil with sugar, and feeding the world.
The other area in which biobatteries might be useful is powering implanted devices, such as pacemakers — or, in the future, subcutaneous sensors and computers. Such a biobattery could feed on the glucose in your bloodstream, providing an endless supply of safe electricity for the myriad implants that futuristic technocrats will surely have.