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An Oil-Free Future? Lithium-Ion Batteries from Ancient Fossils Could Fuel Electric Cars

Oct 24, 2016 11:35 AM EDT

Researchers from the University of California, Riverside's Bourns College of Engineering are developing a cheap and energy-efficient way to use fossilized diatoms to create powerful lithium-ion batteries, which could someday fuel electric vehicles and other electronic devices.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, states that the researchers, lead by Mihri Ozkan, are creating a way to replace the composition of anode in a battery from graphite to silicon. To note, lithium-ion batteries are widely used in the market as they are rechargeable energy sources that could power various technology. A lithium-ion battery consists of an electrolyte, an anode and a cathode.

"Batteries that power electric vehicles are expensive and need to be charged frequently, which causes anxiety for consumers and negatively impacts the sale of these vehicles. To improve the adoption of electric vehicles, we need much better batteries. We believe diatomaceous earth, which is abundant and inexpensive, could be another sustainable source of silicon for battery anodes," said Mihri Ozkan via Science Daily.

In the study, the researchers said that using graphite for the anode limits the performance of the battery. Silicon, on the other hand, can store 10 times more energy. However, the challenge comes with production as creating silicon-based anodes are costly and consumes high amounts of energy.

As a solution, the team used a cheap source of silicon in the form of single-celled algae called diatoms as well as using a more efficient chemical process called magnesiothermic reduction. High amounts of diatoms could be found in silicon-rich sedimentary rocks called diatomaceous earth, and through magnesiothermic reduction, can be converted to Silicon Dioxide and pure silicon nanoparticles.

"A significant finding in our research was the preservation of the diatom cell walls -- structures known as frustules -- creating a highly porous anode that allows easy access for the electrolyte," said Cengiz Ozkan, co-author of the study.

This new discovery opens up ways to developing high power sources such as lithium-ion batteries from environmentally friendly materials readily found in nature.

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