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Enzymes can use sugar to power your smart phone

Put a new word in your dictionary. A research team at Virginia Tech announced a biobattery that has 10X the energy storage of lithium ion batteries using a 15% solution of maltodextrin, a form of sugar, with a collection of 13 enzymes. The title of their report is A high-energy-density sugar biobattery based on a synthetic enzymatic pathway.

Plants provide biomass for conversion to green energy
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The research report published in Nature magazine on Jan. 21, 2014 outlines the results to date for the project. The summary findings of this development were a significant improvement in electrical current density as compared to lithium ion batteries, while using sugar as the fuel material. Lithium batteries have had significant problems with overheating, as seen in the grounding of a fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft.

“High-energy-density, green, safe batteries are highly desirable for meeting the rapidly growing needs of portable electronics. The incomplete oxidation of sugars mediated by one or a few enzymes in enzymatic fuel cells suffers from low energy densities and slow reaction rates. Here we show that nearly 24 electrons per glucose unit of maltodextrin can be produced through a synthetic catabolic pathway that comprises 13 enzymes in an air-breathing enzymatic fuel cell.

This enzymatic fuel cell is based on non-immobilized enzymes that exhibit a maximum power output of 0.8 mW cm−2 and a maximum current density of 6 mA cm−2, which are far higher than the values for systems based on immobilized enzymes. Enzymatic fuel cells containing a 15% (wt/v) maltodextrin solution have an energy-storage density of 596 Ah kg−1, which is one order of magnitude higher than that of lithium-ion batteries. Sugar-powered biobatteries could serve as next-generation green power sources, particularly for portable electronics.”

The research was headed by Y. –H Percival Zhang and a team from several research areas at Virginia Tech that included biological systems engineering. The major researchers on this project have formed a new company, Cell Free Bioinnovations, Inc.

While commercial development of biobatteries is thought to be three or more years, there is other scientific research to indicate that using enzymes in alternative energy production has a significant future. One application that will be discussed in a future article has enzymes used to convert biomass directly into hydrogen.

Enzymes have had significant developments achieved through genetic engineering. Enzymes have now been produced through yeast cultures and through microbes that offer the possibility of enhancing anaerobic digester output, and progress is being made in converting CO2 into formic acid and then into methanol.

The report, Research On Enzyme-Catalyzed Sequential Reduction of Carbon Dioxide, released by the International Congress on Energy 2011, defines the initial steps to convert the CO2 back into a useful energy form, i.e. methanol, or to produce formaldehyde, which is a valuable chemical compound.

The byproduct of the biobattery includes water, which is generally not friendly to the components of a smart phone. Using genetic engineering to produce sequences of enzyme provides a development path to utilize biomass and CO2 to provide significant amounts of energy that can replace hydrocarbon fuels and reduce the global environmental stress from the continued increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Although not there yet, alternative energy production is making major strides due to research in using enzymes to enhance biochemical processes and to convert the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back into usable energy sources.

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