Rice Researchers Develop Plant-Based Battery

Flowers of Rubia tinctorum, the common madder or dyer's madder, at Jena Botanical Garden, Germany. Wikipedia image
Scientists at Rice University are developing a "green" battery that uses plant matter to hold a charge.

What if you could grow a plant and then make a battery out of it? Or how about if you could buy batteries in spray paint form and paint them onto electronics?

Those are the ideas scientists at Rice University are exploring as they try to think of different ways to manufacture and use batteries.

Rice University Material Science and Engineering Professor Pulickel Ajayan says one of the reasons behind all this research is that lithium-ion batteries, the kind in your smart phone, laptop and other rechargable devices, are expensive and not eco-friendly.

"And one of the things we decided to do was to look at organics and you know plants obviously come to mind. They are the most environmentally friendly, I suppose. But these are non-conducting organic matter."

So Ajayan and his team found a way to combine plants with carbon and bind lithium ions.

They're using the madder plant, a climbing vine used since ancient times to make fabric dye. It has the potential to be a cheaper, greener way to power the world's devices.

"We are not going to see plant-based batteries very soon, but it's a good starting point and at least it allows us to think differently and think about doing technologies in a much more environmentally friendly way."

It's estimated American consumers throw away about 2 billion lithium-ion batteries a year. The Rice research team hopes to have a working prototype of a completely organic battery in a few years ... or in 6 to 8 billion lithium-ion batteries from now.

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Laurie Johnson

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Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...