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That may be about to change. Materials scientists and electrochemists the world over are joining forces to create new types of batteries that perform better and last longer, are more reliable and demand less of the environment.

"We are fascinated by the ability to develop alternative electrode technologies to replace conventional inorganic materials in batteries," he adds. "And we're now tapping into other plant molecules to further improve battery performance."

"We are working at a laboratory scale now, so it might take a couple of years before fully organic batteries are on the market," Dr Reddy says.

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With some tweaking, purpurin is turned into a highly effective, natural cathode for lithium ion batteries. "What's more, the cathode can be produced at room temperature something that couldn't be done with cobalt cathodes," Dr Reddy explains.

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Innovative lithium air batteries promise to deliver three to five times higher energy storage capacities than lithium ion batteries, says Dr Wolfgang Schmidbauer, the project co ordinator for the Glanz (stands for "anodes and cells protected by glass") project at Schott, a technology company in Mainz. (Project partners include Munster University, Rockwood Lithium, Varta Microbattery and Volkswagen.)

In all laboratory set ups, synthetic air or oxygen is used for the reaction that takes places at the battery's cathode. "This is because real air has some impurities, such as carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, which is a kind of poison for the chemical catalytic reaction on the cathode side for the lithium ions to be oxidised to lithium oxide," Dr Schmidbauer notes.

High energy batteries running on lithium air, or lithium sulphur, for example, are well suited for robots or unmanned vehicles, he adds.

Most hybrid electric vehicles rely on nickel metal hydride batteries, which provide adequate performance but are expensive. "Progress is being made with rechargeable lithium batteries and vehicles using these are now appearing on the roads, but there will be a cost penalty and there might be safety concerns," says David Rand, a former chief research scientist, and now an honorary research scientist at CSIRO Energy Technology in Melbourne.

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"We can now accomplish the same function as cobalt by using a dye extracted from the madder plant," says Rice University lead researcher Leela Mohana Reddy. The organic dye, called purpurin, has been used since time immemorial for colouring fabrics.

Batteries work by turning chemical energy into electrical energy. They comprise one or more cells, each containing two electrodes a negative and a positive and a chemical called the electrolyte that transports charge between them.

So why use an aircraft rather than a conventional satellite? "For a satellite to work as a relay, it must have a stationary position with respect to Earth," Dr Schmidbauer replies. "Placing a satellite weighing several tonnes in such a position about 12,000 kilometres above the ground is very expensive. If something is defective, the multimillion dollar satellite is gone."

Take any stand alone solar power system and ask yourself what its weakest point might be? Ask the same of electric cars or laptop computers. The answer, in general, is the battery.

On the other hand, an unmanned aircraft cruising in circles above one spot can, in principle, perform the same job, at much lower cost. "And, if something needs to be repaired, the vehicle can land at any military airport to be repaired," he concludes.

The battery is expected to achieve a specific energy of about 1000 watt hours per kilogram, thus extending the range for electric cars.

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"One of the most favoured applications, which I like personally, is in an unmanned aircraft which flies above regular altitudes and works as a network relay for internet and telecommunications purposes."

In the air

The climbing plant madder, Rubia tinctorum, for instance, has the potential to build a rechargeable battery that is greener than any other, say researchers at Rice University and the City College of New York.

Not to be outdone, the Germans, too, are trailblazing innovative battery systems. Lacoste Navy Polo

This new battery relies on a special material made of glass ceramic powder, Dr Schmidbauer explains. The size of its grains is ideal for conducting lithium ions and provides outstanding electrochemical resistance.

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But the new battery is far from ready for market. "We still have a lot of fundamental problems that need scientific research to be solved. And then there's engineering scale up. So, all in all, it will take 10 to 20 years before the lithium air battery is on sale."

The daylight energy for such a craft would be derived from solar cells, which also load the batteries; at nighttime, the batteries would supply the Lacoste Jeans Mens

Conducting ions in solid state materials is where the future lies, Dr Schmidbauer believes. "We're optimistic that we'll be able to apply our expertise to a range of new applications."

Cost penalty

In the case of lithium ion batteries, used widely in domestic and other appliances, the positive electrodes generally incorporate cobalt, which must be mined and then processed at high temperature, releasing relatively large quantities of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Such batteries must work at high rates of charging and discharging. "The battery cannot deliver the required current when the state of charge is below 30 per cent, and cannot accept charge efficiently either from regenerative braking or from engine charging when it's above 70 per cent," Dr Rand observes.

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required energy. Because it would be a fully electric vehicle, such an aircraft could cruise for several weeks or months, he notes.

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In the quest for greener, cleaner battery systems, they are turning to the stuff we breathe air.

For one electrode to receive more electrons than the other, different metals are used for the negative and positive electrodes. On battery discharge, these are known respectively as the anode and cathode, with excess electrons flowing from the former to the latter. This is what generates an electric current.

Organic batteries would suit a variety of purposes from powering tomorrow's small electronic toys, to fleets of electric vehicles. But they are some way from commercial reality.

bound inside an organic matrix," he says. "Together, both elements form a highly stable and dense membrane that separates the battery's two electrodes."

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