Batteries Made With … Vanilla?

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There’s a new type of battery storage technology that has an interesting spice added into the mix — vanillin, which is the primary component of the extract of the vanilla bean. Now, I’m sure you’re thinking I’ve lost it — I had to double-check what I was reading and make sure I was reading this right. But these batteries will indeed have an ingredient that is in many sweets and treats. Just don’t eat the batteries.

TU Graz researcher Stefan Spirk has found a way to replace liquid electrolytes in redox flow batteries by vanillin. © Lunghammer — TU Graz

The TU Graz press department shared the study conducted by researchers at TU Graz who have found a way to convert vanillin into a redox-active electrolyte material for liquid batteries.

Stefan Spirk from the Institute of Technology at Graz University of Technology led the team. He stated, “It is ground-breaking in the field of sustainable energy storage technology.” He and his team had the challenge of making redox-flow batteries more environmentally friendly. Doing so meant replacing the core element with something found in beignets.

The liquid electrolyte in this core element is typically made from harmful heavy metals or from rare-earth metals. Switching that out with a key ingredient in many desserts sounds a bit nutty, but in the end, it turned out to be the right ingredient for this energy generating (yet still inedible) treat.

Vanillin is one of the few fine chemicals produced from lignin, which Spirk and his team refined into a redox-active material. They accomplished this by using mild and green chemistry without the use of toxic and expensive metal catalysts — this enables it to be used in flow batteries.

The process worked at room temperature and was able to be implemented with common household chemicals. Spirk elaborated on the fact that vanillin is pretty much available everywhere. “If you want, you can buy it even in the supermarket, but we can also use a simple reaction to separate it from lignin, which in turn is produced in large quantities as waste product in paper production.”

Want to commercialise the “green” redox flow technology developed at Graz University of Technology: Dominik Wickenhauser, Dieter Wurm, Stefan Spirk, Wolfgang Bauer, Georg Rudelstorfer, Werner Schlemmer, and Wolfgang Zitz (f. l.). © Lunghammer — TU Graz

While the separation and refining process was patented, the successful test results were published in the journal Angewandte Chemie. This is probably one of the only recipes using vanilla that has a patent — however, there is a chance I could be wrong. Spirk shared that the researchers have plans to commercialize the technology, since the process is highly scalable and great for continuous production.

“The plan is to hook up our plant to a pulp mill and isolate the vanillin from the lignin that is left over as waste. Whatever is not needed can subsequently flow back into the regular cycle and be used energetically as usual. We are in concrete talks with Mondi AG, a leading global manufacturer of paper-based products, which is showing great interest in the technology.”

Tests at TU Graz with a 3 kilowatt-hour prototype and with vanillin-based electrolytes proved the effectiveness of the new process. © Lunghammer — TU Graz

For the project’s final implementation, the tech needs to be tested in a real operation. The company is currently searching for energy supply companies that can integrate the startup’s redox flow technology into its infrastructure. Spirk believes this tech will be successful. “We can keep the value chain ranging from the procurement of raw materials and components to the generation of electricity on a regional basis, enable storage capacities of up to hundreds of MWh, relieve the strain on the electricity grid and make an important contribution to the green energy storage.”

It’s pretty neat that the scientists were able to create a way to replace elements in liquid batteries made from toxic and rare earth metals with something as fragrant as vanillin.

Although Tesla has pretty much redesigned the entire cell of a lithium-ion battery and has made tremendous progress with its battery technology, perhaps a liquid battery with a vanilla center could compete on the market, while making the air smell a bit sweeter. I do wonder if these batteries smell yummy!

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Johnna Crider

Johnna owns less than one share of $TSLA currently and supports Tesla's mission. She also gardens, collects interesting minerals and can be found on TikTok

Johnna Crider has 1996 posts and counting. See all posts by Johnna Crider