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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
'Freaky Friday' Technologies Grow Metal, Create Batteries from Trees

We know from the emerging discipline of biomimicry that natural systems can stimulate sustainable designs for human use. Two recent innovations use trees for inspiration and materials in unconventional products that may revolutionize very different industries: large-scale metal production, and battery technology to suit cars and wearable devices.

First, a startup in Seattle has developed a process to “grow” high-performance metals using only electricity, saving significant costs and energy. Modumetal announced this week it raised $33.5 million in funding for increasing production and sales of its metals, which are already being used on oil rigs off the Australian, African and U.S. coasts.

Modumetal’s innovative production process and product could mark a breakthrough for the construction, automotive and oil and gas industries. According to the company, its metals can withstand the ocean’s corrosive power for up to eight times longer than conventional materials.

Christina Lomasney, Modumetal’s CEO and co-founder told Fortune her company’s metal-growing process is “the ideal way of making materials.” It is similar to the way that “Mother Nature has evolved [growing things] over eons,” she said.

Conventional ways to extract and use metals typically involve large amounts of heat. Many metals are mined and then extracted from ores through smelting at high temperatures. Companies can also reuse metal scraps, but they must be melted and cast into usable shapes.

By contrast, Modumetal uses a process similar to electroplating, where electricity is used to create a metal coating on a surface. The company employs nanotechnology to closely control the conditions and substances through which electroplating occurs. Essentially, the process involves growing metal on a surface in a way that makes it easier to shape the material’s characteristics with precision.

Layer-by-layer, Modumetal grows metal similar to how the environment controls conditions related to a tree’s growth. Lomasney says to think about the resulting material like plywood, with the plies created at the nanotech level.

Modumetal’s combination of electrochemical production and nanotechnology could be a breakthrough for the industry by producing metal pieces in large volumes and with large pieces.

Meanwhile, scientists at KTH and Harvard University have developed a wood-based soft battery made from tree fibers, according to a study published in Nature.

The battery will be ideal for powering soft wearable devices, such as electronics-embedded clothing, or for the doors of electric cars, where it would provide power without taking up storage space.

The battery material — a wood-based, foam-like aerogel — is made by breaking down tree fibers so they are a millionth of their original size. This process produces nanocellulose, which researchers say is a highly useful material.

“It is possible to make incredible materials from trees and cellulose,” said researcher Max Hamedi.

The aerogel also enables the batteries to have a 3D structure, providing significantly more storage capacity in smaller spaces.

“Three-dimensional, porous materials have been regarded as an obstacle to building electrodes. But we have proven that this is not a problem,” Hamedi told Factor. “In fact, this type of structure and material architecture allows flexibility and freedom in the design of batteries.”

The battery’s structure is likely its most innovative and appealing feature.

“You can press it as much as you want,” Hamedi explained. “While flexible and stretchable electronics already exist, the insensitivity to shock and impact are somewhat new.”

Other advancements in biobased battery technology emerged last year from Japan — with startup Power Japan Plus launching its Ryden battery, which generates twice as much energy as a lithium ion battery and charges 20 times faster, and is made of carbon sourced from modified organic cotton fibers — and from Sweden, with researchers at Uppsala University’s Ångström Laboratory creating a battery made from alfalfa and pine resin, that can be recycled with a low-energy input and non-hazardous chemicals, such as ethanol and water.


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