Soft Membrane Outperforms Batteries in Storing Energy

Take a mad scientist’s grotesque experimental leftovers, add a pinch of the Energizer Bunny’s wildest dreams, and throw the mess into a transmutation machine. The results may resemble a soft, foldable membrane that has now emerged from real-life labs as…

Take a mad scientist’s grotesque experimental leftovers, add a pinch of the Energizer Bunny’s wildest dreams, and throw the mess into a transmutation machine. The results may resemble a soft, foldable membrane that has now emerged from real-life labs as a battery supplement for everything from smartphones to electric cars.

Such a plastic membrane can store energy at a cost 4 to 8 times more efficient than the lithium ion batteries used in Apple’s iPhones or Toyota’s Prius hybrid car. The simple design, based on sandwiching the membrane between two charged metal plates, can also scale up to fit bigger energy storage needs more easily than building bigger batteries.

“With the advent of our novel membrane, energy-storage technology will be more accessible, affordable and producible on a large scale,” said Xian Ning Xie, a chemist at the National University of Singapore.

The membrane’s energy storage could create a backup for alternative energy sources — such as solar or wind power — so that changes in sunlight and wind speed don’t lead to sudden drops in the electricity supply. Similarly, it could supplement and extend thebattery life of electric cars to help cut down on both costs and waste.

Xie and his team have already successfully filed a U.S. patent on their invention, based on work supported by the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research & Technology and the U.S. National Research Foundation. Several venture capitalists have also come knocking to help commercialize the membrane and push it beyond a lab prototype.

“Compared to rechargeable batteries and supercapacitors, the proprietary membrane allows for very simple device configuration and low fabrication cost,” Xie said. “Moreover, the performance of the membrane surpasses those of rechargeable batteries, such as lithium ion and lead-acid batteries, and supercapacitors.”

The research appears in the journal Energy & Environmental Science and the journal Nature.