Researchers at the University of California, Riverside have created prototype lithium-ion battery that runs on portobello mushrooms instead of graphite. Could these super-porous fungi be the power source for the batteries of the future?
More importantly – for the battery-loving, phone-hugging public and portobello mushroom growers worldwide – the findings suggest that these revolutionary new mushroom-powered lithium-ion batteries may have some serious advantages over their old-school graphite competitors.
It sounds loopy – but it makes a surprising amount of sense.
Let’s start with the technology as it is.
What’s the technology behind the standard lithium-ion battery?
In a standard lithium-ion battery (the sort used to power mobile phones and electric cars) there’s one positive and one negative electrode - the anode and the cathode - which together move charged lithium atoms back and forth, releasing or storing energy depending on the direction of the flow.
The anodes in current batteries are made of synthetic graphite, which is pricey to manufacture and must be treated with environmentally damaging chemicals that include hydrofluoric and sulphuric acids, producing a bunch of hazardous waste. It isn't great, but it's the best technology we have.
Well, maybe not anymore.
Why mushroom batteries?
A few years back, some forward-thinking scientists got interested in the idea of replacing the synthetic graphite in all these batteries with something that was cheaper to make (so cheaper to sell) and more eco-friendly.
A team of researchers at University of California (UC), Riverside decided on portobello mushrooms as a candidate thanks to their exceptional porosity. They posited that the mushroom fibres would contain a lot more space for lithium ions to move into and as a consequence, a mushroom battery would have far more potential to store and supply power.
Moreover, portobello mushrooms contain high concentrations of potassium salt, meaning that over time, more pores open in the mushroom material. This, the researchers hypothesised, would actually increase a mushroom-anode lithium ion battery's capacity the more it was used.
“With battery materials like this, future cell phones may see an increase in run time after many uses, rather than a decrease, due to apparent activation of blind pores within the carbon architectures as the cell charges and discharges over time,” said project team member Brennan Campbell in a UC Riverside press release.
How feasible are mushroom batteries, really?
At this stage, the new portobello-mushroom-anode battery is at an early development stage. So far, the UC researchers have shown that these batteries will indeed become more porous and thus store more energy the more they're used. But they’re not yet ready to say mass manufacturing’s around the corner.
Right now, they say, the mushroom battery is far less efficient than its graphite-based lithium-ion predecessor. The next phase of the project is to optimise the system and determine whether or not it’s a genuine contender for world lithium-ion battery domination.
The team seems pretty confident: already, they’ve filed patents for their new technology, as detailed in Scientific Reports.
What is the potential?
It's an if, but if these eco-friendly fungal power-houses can be made efficient enough to compete with the graphite version, you can bet they'll go into commercial production quick-smart. Indeed, if they can be effectively optimised, mushroom batteries have the potential to make conventional lithium-ion battery technology redundant.
And if mushroom batteries take off globally en masse, someone's going to have to grow all those portobello mushrooms.
Maybe it’s worth turning a hand to portobello mushroom-growing. At worst, you can sell your crop to a mushroom-loving Aussie public (who consume twice the volume per capita as Americans do), or export them to Asia while you wait.
According to the Australian Mushroom Growers’ Association (AMGA), there’s no reason why a (battery-ready) portobello mushroom industry couldn’t be established here. Growers already producing this variety of mushroom would have a head start, but if you can get hold of some portobello spores and a shed, you’re in business.
It could be a few years (or never) before you’ll be supplying battery manufacturers with super-porous edible fungi but you might want to consider getting ahead of the game.
5 good reasons you might want to invest in a portobello mushroom shed now
1 Battery life
The UC Riverside researchers' prototype portobello mushroom batteries have a longer short-term battery life than traditional graphite-based batteries, and unlike the old-school versions, they are likely to develop even better battery life as they age.
Compared with graphite, mushroom battery innards are astoundingly cheap.
3. Ease of manufacturing
They’re also easy to make, say the UC researchers. There’s no toxic processing involved: to produce portobello mushrooms, all you need is the right spore, some manure and a dark shed.
Mushroom batteries, unlike the graphite sort, are pretty well biodegradable. Given that global demand for batteries is growing exponentially and is set to go gangbusters once many millions more battery-powered electric vehicles hit the market in coming years, that’s a lot of hazardous landfill mushrooms may have just saved us from.
5. Cool factor