Chicken fat, feathers, bones, and droppings are being explored for sustainable energy storage materials and bio-based fuels.

Energy Storage Meets Schmaltz As Scientists Seek Sustainable Carbon

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Energy storage researchers have been hot on the trail of sustainable carbon to replace the fossil-sourced materials used in batteries. The search has led to some unexpected results. In the latest development, scientists in Korea have hit upon a solution familiar to anyone who has been tasked with cleaning off the roasting pan after a big chicken dinner.

For Sustainable Energy Storage, Just Add Schmaltz

If you guessed chicken fat — aka schmaltz — could be the new miracle material, run right out and buy yourself a cigar.

Complete details about the process of transforming chicken fat into a sustainable energy storage material are available in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces under the title, “Strategic Way of Synthesizing Heteroatom-Doped Carbon Nano-onions Using Waste Chicken Fat Oil for Energy Storage Devices,” but the basic steps are fairly simple.

In fact, you could DIY this at home without even having to roast a whole chicken. Just take a gas flame gun to a piece of chicken skin, catch the melted fat in a flask as it drips off, throw a wick in there and light the end of the wick, just like an old fashioned oil lamp.

If you do it right, the leftover soot at the bottom of the flask should consist of unique carbon nanostructures, described as “uniform spherical lattices of concentric graphite rings, like the layers of onions.”

“Herein we synthesized multilayered graphitic carbon nano-onions (CNOs) using an oil-wick flame pyrolysis approach, employing biowaste (chicken fat) oil as a cost-effective precursor,” the researchers summarized.

Applying a nano-onion soot to the cathode of your energy storage device is where things can get tricky. The researchers tested the new material on the cathode of an asymmetric supercapacitor, meaning a supercapacitor that uses two different materials for the cathode and anode.

For the anode, the researchers relied on a manganese-cobalt sulfide compound. That material has been gaining fans in the supercapacitor area, partly based on its cost-effectiveness.

On Second Thought, Don’t DIY This At Home

The researchers found that the nanoparticles derived from chicken fat did a reasonably good job on the cathode, providing for “good capacitance and durability, as well as high energy and power density.”

They also tested the soot after soaking it in the organic compound thiourea. That yielded even better results, enabling the research team to demonstrate their new supercapacitors in a real-world application, to light up colored LEDs.

Before you order up some thiourea from the online store, though, you may want to consider some user-friendlier alternatives.

Back in the day, thiourea — a white, crystalline material — was commonly used in dry cleaning as well as hair treatments. “Currently, it is only used in animal glue liquefiers and silver tarnish removers,” advises the US National Institutes of Health.

“When heated to decomposition, thiourea emits toxic fumes of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides,” NIH adds. “Long-term exposure of humans to thiourea may cause bone marrow damage, resulting in reduced levels of red blood cells, white blood cells and/or platelets.”

Many Roads To Sustainable Energy Storage

Before we get too excited about the prospect of running electric vehicles off a battery enabled by chicken fat, let’s step back a bit. Supercapacitors are not the same as the batteries typically used in EVs. An EV battery charges slowly, and it also discharges slowly. In contrast, a supercapacitor can charge and discharge in a matter of seconds.

In terms of energy storage, there are many uses for supercapacitors, including certain uses in electric vehicles. Powering the entire car is not one of them — yet. Another research team in Korea has proposed a fast-charging hybrid EV battery that can charge in seconds, borrowing some advantages of sodium-ion technology combined with a supercapacitor element.

Meanwhile, the search for more sustainable energy storage materials goes on. Another recent development comes from a research team based in Romania, involving a char produced from spruce wood. The researchers focused on developing a new low heat, energy-saving process.

“The synthesis strategy provides an appropriate energy-efficient option for converting biomass into carbonaceous materials with meaningful properties suitable for energy storage applications,” they reported.

In Finland, the collaborative research center FinnCERES has been working on an entire energy storage do-over. “We aim at building a battery, which uses biobased carbon as the anode, nanocellulose-based hydrogel as the electrolyte, and organic materials as the cathode,” FinnCERES explained in a recap  last August.

In addition to replacing graphite, the bio-based materials will replace metals including cobalt, nickel and lithium. “And the hydrogel electrolyte is aimed to maximise the safety and stabilize the interface with the organic electrode material, increasing the lifetime of the battery,” FinnCERES adds.

The Chicken Factor: Beyond Energy Storage

As for chickens, apparently the best is yet to come. In addition to chicken fat, chicken bones have also made an appearance in the energy storage field. “Cooked chicken bone waste (CCBW) has been traditionally used as the source of food for some animals like dogs in developing countries, all the same, it has never been reported as an energy storage material,” a research team based in South Africa noted in 2022.

Well, they fixed that. “In this study, CCBW has been successfully converted into carbon materials (activated carbon) through a simple and cost-effective activation process for supercapacitor applications,” the team reported.

Another approach to recruiting chickens into the energy storage supply chain comes from a research team based in Poland, which has been investigating the use of carbonized chicken egg shells for anodes in lithium-ion batteries.

Sustainable energy storage materials are just one part of the chicken story. CleanTechnica has also spotted a new bio-based membrane for hydrogen fuel cells, made with a protein derived from chicken feathers.

Biofuel is another area ripe for exploitation. Back in January of 2013, we noted that biodiesel made with chicken fat was featured in the new Mazda6 “clean diesel” sedan at the Daytona International Speedway, which also tapped a chicken fat synthetic oil formula as its official motor oil that year.

Aside from the biofuel angle, we’re also keeping an eye out for other energy related uses, such as hydrochar fuel processed from chicken droppings. The US Environmental Protection Agency is also pitching biogas production as a means of reducing methane emissions at poultry farms, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Image (cropped): Chickens depicted in archived poster, courtesy of US Department of Agriculture.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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