Solar Charge Your Mobile Phone While on the Go: Farewell to Flat Batteries

Scientia Professor Rose Amal and her group of researchers from the Particles and Catalysis Research Group (PartCat) at the UNSW School of Chemical Engineering are developing solar battery technology that could soon make it possible for you to directly charge the same battery in your mobile phone using light from any source.

It is like watching a movie. The whole structural evolution process of the solar battery electrode during the light-activated intercalation reactions unfolds in front of our eyes.

Shi Nee Lou, a PhD student from PartCat

Developments in technology are undoubtedly making our lives easier and more comfortable. However, it is still a modern day’s frustration that our smartphones are operating on batteries that require frequent charging. Scientia Professor Rose Amal and her group of researchers from the Particles and Catalysis Research Group (PartCat) at the UNSW School of Chemical Engineering are developing solar battery technology that could soon make it possible for you to directly charge the same battery in your mobile phone using light from any source. Solar charging of the battery is achieved without having to mount solar panels onto the battery or the device. This means your smartphone will continue to be lightweight and portable and can instantly be recharged using sunlight as you go about your day-to-day activities.

While it may sound unbelievable, such research is being conducted by the PartCat team with the findings having been recently published in Advanced Energy Materials. The solar-charged battery operates on the same technology as the current state-of-art alkali-ion battery where alkali-ions shuttle between two open-structured battery electrodes during the charge and discharge processes. Rather than using the power supply to charge the battery, the solar-chargeable battery utilises light energy to drive the movement of the alkali-ions between the electrodes in the charging process.

solar-charged battery
“Most battery electrodes can be classified as semiconductors. Upon illumination, these semiconductors generate photoexcited electrons which can create an imbalance of charge within the battery electrodes. Positively-charged alkali-ions from the electrolyte can readily diffuse or intercalate into the open channels of the battery electrodes to neutralise and store these light-activated electrons in the batteries. Then, when energy is demanded, the alkali cations can de-intercalate from the electrode structure to release the stored energy. The solar-charging concept of the battery is simple, however, underexplored,” explains Dr. Yun Hau Ng, a Senior Lecturer from the UNSW School of Chemical Engineering, who leads the solar energy conversion program within PartCat.

To facilitate this revolutionary fundamental research into solar-chargeable intercalation batteries, the team at the UNSW School of Chemical Engineering, along with Dr Neeraj Sharma and his group from the UNSW School of Chemistry collaborated closely to develop an operando synchrotron-based X-ray Diffraction method and novel photoelectrochemical cell. The system allows for the dynamic structural change of the solar battery electrodes from the photo-intercalation reactions to be visualised in real-time and under the working conditions of the solar battery.

“It is like watching a movie. The whole structural evolution process of the solar battery electrode during the light-activated intercalation reactions unfolds in front of our eyes. By studying these structural changes, we can uncover the structural prerequisites that are critical to the light-induced intercalation reaction in the solar-chargeable batteries. With the new level of understanding, we are now in a better position to design new materials with predefined conductivities and microstructures for the light-induced intercalation reaction and build better solar batteries with greater energy densities,” says Shi Nee Lou, a PhD student from PartCat and the principle investigator in this research. “Ultimately, the energy density of a solar-chargeable intercalation battery is influenced by the number of alkali ions that can be reversibly intercalated into the electrode structure using light,” adds Dr. Jason Scott, a Senior Research Fellow from School of Chemical Engineering and Deputy Leader of PartCat.

Research into solar battery technology may mean you never have to worry about running out of juice.

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