Sand Power: A Better Battery

Technology of the future is hard to see coming — sometimes because you can’t see it.

Advances in nanotechnology are the driving force behind longer lasting Lithium-ion batteries.

Currently, Lithium-ion batteries are used to power every-day technologies like cell phones, computers, cameras and cars. Their energy source is a carbon-based graphite anode, which is nothing short of polarizing. Battery life has always been a major concern with Li-ion batteries.

The solution is the most abundant compound in the earth’s crust: SiO2,­ or — more commonly — sand. The next generation of battery technology is using sand as a source for the production of nano-silicon, an anode material for Li-ion batteries.

Batteries operate by electron flow. Electrons gather at the negative end of the battery and move towards the positive end when a conductive material connects the two. In this fashion, electrons move from the anode to the cathode, powering whatever may be connected in-between.

Batteries, unfortunately, contain a finite amount of energy available to power this electrochemical difference. That is where sand comes in.

Research has shown that the silicon-based SiO2 has a high energy capacity and its anodes are estimated to last 3 times the lifespan of its carbon-based competitor. In addition to this obvious benefit, silicon-backed Li-ion batteries are easily recharged and weigh less than traditional Li-ion batteries.

As far as the process of purifying sand for use in the battery goes, results are a bit coarse. Quartz grains undergo a 300% volume expansion during lithiation, making the silica particles larger and more susceptible to fracture.

Even when the materials separate properly, it comes at a cost. The source material may be cheap, but the preparation is not — the nanostructures created in the process are not yet cost-effective to be produced at the kilogram level.

Nonetheless, sand remains a readily available, non-toxic, environmentally friendly solution to a better battery.

For more information visit University of California, Riverside.

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