The Answer to Your Phone Charging Nightmares: Mushrooms

October 2, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

portabella mushrooms
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Engineers discover how batteries made with portabella mushrooms could provide more efficient power sources for cell phones and electric cars.

Do mushrooms belong on lavish dinner plates, or in your cell phone? Engineers found that the key to producing an efficient, low-cost, and environmental-friendly battery might be embedded in the porous structure of portabella mushrooms.

At the University of California College of Engineering, researchers created a new type of lithium-ion battery — the type needed to power electronics and electric cars. Researchers chose mushrooms as the model to transform batteries since the highly porous structure enables the passage of liquid or air. This porosity provides more storage space and surface area to transfer energy, a critical element in battery life.

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Synthetic graphite is the current industry standard for manufacturing lithium-ion batteries, but the material has a number of problems. The purification and preparation processes are not only tedious, but extremely damaging to the environment. Biomass — a biological material from living or recently living organisms — offers a promising alternative that’s inexpensive, environmentally-friendly, and rich in carbon.

One of the most frustrating things about batteries is that they degrade over time, so we have no other choice than to cough up more bills if we want to keep our devices charged. Interestingly, mushroom batteries might actually get better with age. Since they’re high in potassium salt, more pores are activated by the electrolyte activity during each charge and discharge cycle. Over time, this increases the battery’s capacity, improving its overall charge.

"With battery materials like this, future cell phones may see an increase in run time after many uses, rather than a decrease, due to apparent activation of blind pores within the carbon architectures as the cell charges and discharges over time," Brennan Campbell, a graduate student in the Materials Science and Engineering program at UC Riverside, said in a press release.

Although improving cell phone batteries would make our daily lives a little easier, perhaps the most pressing issue accompanies the future of electric cars. Nearly six million electric cars are set to hit the market by 2020, so almost 900,000 tons of natural raw graphite would need to be processed, requiring harsh chemicals like hydrofluoric and sulfuric acids. The method generates large quantities of hazardous waste, and The European Union forecasts it will be unsustainable.

Mushroom batteries won’t replace traditional ones anytime soon, as the researchers say the work needs more development before biologically-charged energy sources can replace the standard synthetic graphite ones. But the possibility is exciting and promising, not to mention it adds to the list of scientific developments working to create a more efficient, environmentally-friendly world.

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