Scientists Accidentally Create a Battery That Can Outlast Your Device
Scientists at University of California, Irving stumble across the secret to long-lasting rechargeable batteries.
Over the last decade or so it’s become increasingly obvious that the limits of battery technology are a pothole on our road to the future. It’s not even a new problem; scientists have been trying to invent better batteries since Edison. Whether we’re talking about storing clean energy, more practical electric cars, or maybe even just our dozing-off phones, battery issues are slowing progress w-a-a-y down. They’re not powerful enough unless they’re uselessly big and seriously pricey. They take a long time to recharge. And for keeping the devices we depend on up and running, they just don’t last long enough.
That is, at least, until researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) stumbled across a way to make ridiculously long-lasting rechargeable batteries. They’ve made a battery that takes 200,000 charge cycles, says, “Is that all you got?” and keeps going. That’s 400 times the charges that a lithium battery can handle.
They were as surprised as anyone. ”We started to cycle the devices, and then realized that they weren't going to die," admitted chair of UCI’s Chemistry department Reginald Penner in an interview with Popular Science. "We don't understand the mechanism of that yet."
Penner’s lab had been experimenting with replacing lithium with gold nanowires—they’re thousands of times thinner than a human hair and very conductive, with a large surface area for storing and transferring electrons. The goal was to make a solid-state battery, without the liquid lithium batteries contain that makes them overly sensitive to heat and combustible. Other researchers have experimented with using the nanowires before, but they’re fragile.
At UCI, PhD candidate Mya Le Thai got the idea of suspending the brittle nanowire in a protective electrolyte gel after coating them with manganese oxide.
And boom: Super-Battery.
“Mya was playing around, and she coated this whole thing with a very thin gel layer and started to cycle it,” as Penner tells it. “She discovered that just by using this gel, she could cycle it hundreds of thousands of times without losing any capacity.”
Rechargeables usually die after 6-7,000 charges, so this is amazing. UCI suspects the gel makes the nanowire more pliable, and thus prevent the cracking that ended previous experiments. This could be the kind of battery-life breakthrough we’ve been waiting for.
Here’s the young scientist herself telling the story of this amazing leap forward.
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Here are 7 often-overlooked World Heritage Sites, each with its own history.
- UNESCO World Heritage Sites are locations of high value to humanity, either for their cultural, historical, or natural significance.
- Some are even designated as World Heritage Sites because humans don't go there at all, while others have felt the effects of too much human influence.
- These 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites each represent an overlooked or at-risk facet of humanity's collective cultural heritage.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.
- Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
- Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
- The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
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