Student created by accident a rechargeable battery with a lifespan of 400 years

According to an old proverb, luck happens when opportunity and preparation come together.

No discovery made in 2016 at the University of California, Irvine, by doctoral student Mya Le Thai serves as a better illustration of that. She made a discovery while tinkering in the lab that might result in a rechargeable battery with a 400-year lifespan. As a result, laptops and smartphones will last longer, and there will be fewer lithium ion batteries that end up in landfills.

A group of scientists at UC Irvine had been experimenting with nanowires for potential battery applications, but they discovered that after too many charging cycles, the thin, brittle wires would degrade and crack over time. A battery goes through a charge cycle when it goes from entirely full to entirely empty and then back to fully charged.

But one day, Thai decided on a whim to coat some gold nanowires in a Plexiglas-like electrolyte gel and manganese dioxide.

The surprise came as she began to cycle these gel capacitors, according to Reginald Penner, head of the university’s chemistry department. “She started to cycle these gel capacitors, and that’s when we got the surprise,” said Reginald Penner, chair of the university’s chemistry department. “She said, ‘this thing has been cycling 10,000 cycles and it’s still going.’ She came back a few days later and said ‘it’s been cycling for 30,000 cycles.’ That kept going on for a month.”

The average laptop battery lasts 300 to 500 charge cycles, so this discovery is astounding. In three months, the UCI-developed nanobattery completed 200,000 cycles. That would add roughly 400 years to the lifespan of a typical laptop battery. The battery would have probably failed decades before the rest of the device, but the implications for a battery with such a long lifespan are quite surprising.

In general, Penner said, “The big picture is that there may be a very simple way to stabilize nanowires of the type that we studied,” Penner said. “If this turns out to be generally true, it would be a great advance for the community.” Not bad for merely playing around in a lab.