Futuristic Alcohol Battery Project Closer to Reality for Saint Louis University Team
Microchip power source could energize cellphones for month
Shelley Minteer, Ph.D.|
ST. LOUIS — A microchip-based battery that can run on alcohol and power a cell phone for a month without recharging may sound like science fiction. But researchers at Saint Louis University are a few steps closer to making it science fact.
Shelley Minteer, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, filed U.S. and International on the innovative idea: a new biofuel cell that generates power from a few drops of alcohol and some natural enzymes.
Minteer is working with graduate student Christine Moore to develop a microchip-based biobattery that provides a glimpse into the future of portable power.
Minteer also has partnered with another graduate student, Nick Akers, to form Akermin Inc., to pursue the commercial applications of the project. The firm has signed a deal with a new seed-capital company BioGenerator, which chose the SLU project out of 35 biotech or life science company proposals. The new company is located at the Nidus Center for Scientific Research, a 40,000-square-foot plant and life sciences incubator in St. Louis.
The SLU invention could replace the rechargeable batteries found in everything from laptops to PDAs. Instead of plugging into a fixed power outlet and waiting for a recharge, these new “batteries” could last up to a full month, charging instantly with a few milliliters of alcohol.
“As computers and electronics get smaller and smaller, we have to make smaller batteries,” Minteer said. “Electrochemists have said that the future of batteries are microchip-based batteries, so we are applying that technology to our biofuel cell.”
Minteer's microchip-based biobattery could replace the rechargeable batteries found in everything from laptops to PDAs.|
The SLU concept is a breakthrough because the researchers are overcoming obstacles that have prevented scientists during the last 50 years from creating a biofuel with true benefits for the average consumer.
Ordinary rechargeable batteries use expensive metals to produce power. They must be recharged often and are harmful to the environment. Some scientists have tried to create fuel cells that combine hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity. But alone, hydrogen is dangerous to store and transport. Other researchers have tried to use methanol, but its power-producing ability fades quickly, negating its advantages.
The SLU cells use another type of alcohol known as ethanol, which is abundant and cheap to make, relying on the well-established corn industry for its production. And unlike methanol, ethanol isn’t toxic to humans. In fact, consumers could recharge the SLU battery with a nip of vodka, gin or even flat beer if they were in a real pinch.
Other researchers in the past have tried enzymes, but they’re extremely sensitive, and it doesn’t take much for them to break down and stop producing power. But the SLU researchers have coated the electrodes of their fuel cell with a special material, creating an ideal environment for the enzymes to thrive and produce a surprising amount of long-lasting power. Other biofuel cells have only lasted a few days.
“Our eventual goal is to make rechargeable batteries that not only last longer, but also will be friendly to the environment,” Minteer said.
Approval of the patents may take about two years, and widespread commercial applications may be even a few more years off. Through its technology transfer office, SLU already has provided $250,000 in fee and licensing waivers and grants for the project. Nearly a dozen chemistry students have worked on the project, and students from the entrepreneurship program in SLU’s John Cook School of Business also have assisted.
Saint Louis University is a Jesuit, Catholic university ranked among the top research institutions in the nation. The University fosters the intellectual and character development of 11,000 students on campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain. Founded in 1818, it is the oldest university west of the Mississippi and the second oldest Jesuit university in the United States. Through teaching, research, health care and community service, Saint Louis University is the place where knowledge touches lives. Learn more about SLU at www.slu.edu.