Skip to content
Subscriber Only

Can PolyPlus's Batteries Power the Future?

New lithium batteries could be the answer for electric cars—if recharging problems can be fixed
The battery "breathes" oxygen much as a fish breathes through its gills
The battery "breathes" oxygen much as a fish breathes through its gills

As any high school chemistry teacher will tell you, mixing lithium with water results in a pretty nasty explosion. So Steven Visco delights in dropping lithium batteries into a fish tank. As unsuspecting orange and white clownfish float by, the credit card-size battery sinks to the bottom. Electrons from the lithium in the battery are drawn toward oxygen from the water, illuminating a small light attached to the battery. “When we put that electrode in water and saw it was completely stable, it was a holy crap-type thing,” says Visco, a chemist who also works on fuel-cell technology at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “And then we started to think about batteries we hadn’t even dreamed about.”

PolyPlus’s innovation is a ceramic seal that lets the battery pull oxygen from the water to create a controlled chemical reaction. Per gram of weight, the batteries last six times longer than anything commercially available, Visco says—which could ultimately add up to big profits for PolyPlus, the Berkeley (Calif.) battery research company he co-founded in 1990.