The Case of the Salt and Paper Battery Project: Developing, Producing and Using Settings Involved in an Attempt to Commercialise Science

The Initial Scientific Research and Development: The Idea for a New Battery Takes Shape

During the 1990s, a research group at the Department of Nanotechnology and Functional Materials at the Angstrom Laboratory at Uppsala University started to do research on the cellulose of a particular type of alga—Cladophora. The research work, which was led by an associate researcher specialised in nanotechnology and a PhD student with a degree in pharmacy, was based on developing knowledge about the particular features of its surface area, and how this could potentially be used for biomedical and pharmaceutical purposes. It was concluded that this cellulose had a very high surface area (~100 m2/g), had a high crystallinity[1] and could be dispersed in water. As a result, it had superior qualities compared to the cellulose traditionally used in pharmaceuticals (tablets). In the late 1990s, this discovery created an interest at the FMC Corporation—a global supplier of chemicals for agriculture, food industry and pharmaceuticals. FMC was also the only supplier in the world of this particular type of alga cellulose and was therefore a potentially very beneficial collaborator from the research group’s point of view. This resulted in what would become a longstanding collaboration between one of FMC’s divisions, FMC Biopolymer (now FMC Health and Nutrition) and the research group.

During the first years of the collaboration, the work mainly concerned potential applications for pharmaceuticals. This resulted in the research group discovering several new qualities of the material that were useful for tablets, some of which proved valuable for FMC. The research at Angstrom continued, and the idea that the material could also be used for conductive purposes started to form. The question they asked themselves was, what would happen if we could make a material with this high surface area to conduct electricity? Cellulose is however not a conductive material, rather it is used as an isolator of electricity. However, due to the high surface area of the alga it had great potential of interacting with the surrounding environment and with other materials, and therefore also had the potential of interacting with and containing a great deal of ions. For this purpose, the cellulose was coated with a conductive type of plastic (polypyrrole) which made it ‘electroactive’. By placing this joint material in a fluid and bringing on a voltage, ions could be ‘forced’ into the material from the surrounding fluid. The idea was that this material could be used for biotechnical and biomedical purposes as a way to filter both desirable and unwanted protein from different types of solutions. However, in this process, it was discovered that the material could hold a lot more ions than expected. As the basic idea of a battery is that it should contain as much ions as possible to get a high-energy density, the idea that it could be used as a battery was born. In a publication of these results in the scientific journal Nano Letters (Nystrom et al., 2009), in which the material was shown to efficiently charge and discharge (thus functioning as a superconductor), it was stated that we introduce a novel nanostructured high-surface area electrode material for energy storage applications composed of cellulose fibers of algal origin individually coated with a 50 nm thin layer of polypyrrole. Our results show the hitherto highest reported charge capacities and charging rates for an all polymer paper-based battery (ibid.). This became one of the most read articles of the journal the same year it was published, 2009. It was these initial and encouraging results that were the foundation of starting an academia-industry collaboration led by Uppsala University Holding AB (UUAB) Holding—the holding company managed by Uppsala University and owned by the Swedish government—in the pursuit of commercialising a new type of battery.

  • [1] This means that the material is organised in a particular structure (compared to an amorf materialwhich is organised in a random structure).
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