Could your hay fever warn you of nearby batteries?

8 Feb 2016

Pollen is generally discussed only by people who have hay fever. The rest of us never consider pollen an issue. It’s fine. The bees like it. Flowers use it to travel the world. But, did you know it could also power batteries?

Researchers in the US are suggesting that pollen could be used in the annode part of batteries, making lithium-ion batteries naturally sustainable, to a degree.

Batteries have two electrodes, called an anode and a cathode. In lithium-ion batteries, graphite is often used to create the former.

But looking at both bee and cattail pollen, Jialiang Tang and his colleagues at Purdue University found a way to process pollen using a procedure called pyrolsis, then ‘charging’ them to act as anodes – the findings are in Scientific Reports.

An allergy, an idea

A few years ago, Tang’s mother developed an allergy to pollen and the chemical engineering student was fascinated “by the beauty and diversity” of its microstructures.

“But the idea of using them as battery anodes did not really kick in until I started working on battery research and learned more about carbonisation of biomass,” he said.

The pyrolysis procedure used to manage the different pollen saw the duo put it in a chamber of argon gas, at a high temperature. This allowed it to yield pure carbon in the shape of the pollen particles.

After it was put through the pyrolysis procedure, it was then heated at a lower temperature, with oxygen, which created pores in the structure to up its energy-storage capacity.

PollenBee pollen studied for battery-use. Colour was added to the image, via Purdue University/Jialiang Tang

Fast charge

One quirk the team discovered was that it took 10 hours for a full charge, but just one hour for well over half a charge.

The bee pollen, made up of different pollen types collected by bees, was not as useful as its cattail alternative, as the latter contains pollens all of the exact same shape.

“The bottom line here is we want to learn something from nature that could be useful in creating better batteries with renewable feedstock,” said Vilas Pol, an associate professor at Purdue University.

“We are just introducing the fascinating concept here,” Pol said. “Further work is needed to determine how practical it might be.”

The further work, by the way, will include research into using pollen as the cathode, too. So, rather than sneezing every time you pass by a pollen field, cursing mother nature’s sniffling, cruel joke, instead think of your bike light, remote control or smartphone.

Some more naturally-sourced power reserves at humanity’s beck and call? Maybe, one day.

Bee image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic