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Research team achieves breakthrough in battery technology using sulfur: 'It could fundamentally change the way we store and use energy'

"Our development paves the way for sulfur electrodes as a viable alternative."

"Our development paves the way for sulfur electrodes as a viable alternative."

Photo Credit: iStock

Sulfur-based battery cathodes have so far been unable to escape degradation during operation. But scientists in Germany may have a solution that brings to bear the abundant, cheaper material's potential for longevity. 

They have reduced decay — also called polysulfide shuttle — by "encapsulating" the sulfur in a microporous polymer. The Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin team doesn't go into great detail on how it developed the material in published descriptions of the science. But, importantly, the result is increased battery performance and service life, as posted on Tech Xplore. 

"Our development paves the way for sulfur electrodes as a viable alternative to conventional metal-based cathodes," research lead professor Michael J. Bojdys said in a lab report. 

Batteries have an anode and a cathode — the charged ends of a power pack — as part of the mechanics needed for them to function. 

The onus behind the research is replacing the rare, expensive metals such as cobalt that are used to make common lithium-ion batteries that power our electric vehicles and other tech. The environmental impact of continuing to mine those hard-to-gather metals isn't lost on the Humboldt experts. 

"The problem: highly toxic materials … are often used for the cathodes of these batteries, which jeopardize the environment and the health of people in the countries where they are mined. In addition, the reserves of these metals are very limited," they wrote in the lab summary. 

Sulfur is a readily available, less-expensive cathode alternative. That's why researchers in other parts of the world are announcing breakthroughs, as well. Surprisingly, a concept out of Argentina includes cow hair in its chemistry. 

Bojdys' team is touting improved energy storage as another benefit from the science coming out of Germany. The work is being funded by the German government with the goal of leveraging sustainable materials in a circular economy

Many of the metals in common batteries are subject to Chinese market regulations, which made some angst-inducing news within the last year in the form of export permit rules. But despite the market concerns, invasive mining, and higher costs needed to make lithium batteries, they remain a cleaner option to power EVs during their lifetimes than gas. 

By switching to an EV, you can save an estimated $1,500 a year on gas and maintenance and prevent about 10,000 pounds of dirty exhaust from polluting the atmosphere. That's good news for everyone who breathes air, as pollution is growingly linked to more negative health concerns

Sulfur cathodes and other inventions that are even cleaner and cheaper — such as lithium-ion batteries with recycled materials and sodium-ion batteries — will only make the burgeoning EV sector more appealing and our transportation system healthier. 

"It could fundamentally change the way we store and use energy and represents an important step toward a more sustainable future," Bojdys said.

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