UC Irvine Accidentally Invents a Battery that Lasts Forever

What do Viagra, popsicles, Corn Flakes, Ivory soap, the kitchen microwave, and champagne have in common? They were all discovered by accident. Add ultra-long-lasting nanowire batteries to that list, thanks to a team of researchers at the University of California Irvine. The average laptop battery is rated anywhere from 300 to 500 charge cycles – completely full to completely empty to completely full again – longer if you don’t use it all up before recharging. The UCI nanobattery endured 200,000 charge cycles over three months “with 94–96% average Coulombic efficiency.” It was effectively still brand new at the end of the experiment.

Let’s go conservative and say the average laptop battery lasts for 1,000 charge cycles, its capacity noticeably diminished after about two years. If that laptop had UCI’s nanobattery it would easily last for 400 years (if 1,000 cycles = two years, 200,000 cycles = 400 years). That’s long enough for that laptop to share a name with, but be far less useful than, an actual brick. If UCI can apply its findings to commercial uses, there’s a revolution coming throughout the electronic landscape.

The advance happened when UCI doctoral candidate Mya Le Thai “was playing around” in the lab and coated a set of gold nanowires in manganese dioxide, then applied a “Plexiglas-like” electrolyte gel. Under normal circumstances, nanowires – highly conductive but thousands of times thinner than a human hair – are useless after no more than 8,000 charge cycles because their fragility causes them to crack during charge and discharge loads. At the end of three months, however, the researchers found the nanowires in Thai’s gel-coated battery still intact. They suspect that the gel “plasticizes the metal oxide in the battery,” imbuing the nanowires with flexibility, which equals longevity. Thai said, “The coated electrode holds its shape much better.” The school published its findings in the American Chemical Society journal Energy Letters.

UC Irvine Battery
We’re a long way from an immortal, practical battery, though. In 2007 scientists at Stanford came up with a nanowire configuration that got a nanobattery through 40,000 charge cycles. The lead researcher said at the time that manufacturing needed “one or two different steps, but… it’s a well understood process.” Nine years later we’re still carrying charging bricks and fighting over public USB ports.

Can champagne really improve your memory and stave off dementia?

If you’ve seen one of those viral headlines claiming that three glasses of champagne a day will stave off dementia, forget them right now. This false claim recently originated from an erroneous headline somewhere in UK tabloid-land, and unfortunately, lots of online publications just ran with it. It seemed too good to be true, so we looked into it – and here’s what the science actually says.

It must have been a slow news day, because the study was actually publishedback in 2013. Health researchers from the University of Reading in England were investigating how certain phenolic acids found in champagne could affect spatial memory… in rats. Phenolic acids are aromatic compounds naturally found in many plants, including the skins of grapes used for making champagne and white wine. They’re akin to flavonoids – natural plant pigments that serve as antioxidants in the human body – and are attributed with some of the benefits of red wine.

There is evidence that foods laden with flavonoids improve spatial memory in rodents by affecting nerves and blood vessels in the brain. Hence the researchers wanted to investigate whether phenolic acids might have a similar effect, too.

They started by taking three groups of eight rats each, and tested their spatial and working memory using a maze test, which involves a food reward for finding the correct route. After running a bunch of these maze tests, for the next six weeks each group of rats received either a small daily dose of champagne, a non-champagne alcoholic drink, or an alcohol-free drink, all with the same amount of calories.

Following six weeks of drinking (actually eating, as the drinks were mixed with powdered food), the rats were tested again, and the champagne group was indeed more accurate at finding the right path in the maze. When the scientists checked the rats’ brains, they found an increase in various proteins that help with cell formation in the brain. The results were published in Antioxidants and Redox Signalling.

So where did the hype come from? According to the press release covering this study, one to three glasses of champagne a week could therefore counteract memory loss associated with aging. But according to an analysis from UK government’s healthcare website NHS Choices, this claim is problematic:

“The media sources do not report responsibly on this early-stage animal research. The quantity of champagne consumed by the rats was said to be equivalent to 1.3 small glasses of champagne (around two units) a week for humans. And we can’t be sure these results would apply to humans.”

Which is a whole lot more measured than what one of the researchers, Jeremy Spencer, said in the press statement. “These exciting results illustrate for the first time that the moderate consumption of champagne has the potential to influence cognitive functioning, such as memory,” he said. “We encourage a responsible approach to alcohol consumption, and our results suggest that a very low intake of one to two glasses a week can be effective.”

As NHS Choices advises, this optimistic advice is best taken with a huge grain of salt. “A slightly improved maze performance in a small number of rats does not necessarily translate into humans having a reduced risk of dementia from drinking champagne,” they write. “The health risks of consuming large amounts of alcohol are well-known.”

Sorry guys, there’s still no excuse to ramp up your intake of bubbly.