Jans Laurids Sørensen, Associate Professor at Aalborg University, won the inaugural Future is Fungi Award this past November for his groundbreaking research using the fungal quinone phoencin, i.e., fungal pigment, to create the world’s first biosynthesized battery. (1) This advancement could lead to a cheap and sustainable grid-scale battery for energy storage.
Image Credits: Carbon FingerPrint
One of the greatest obstacles faced when utilizing renewable energy sources is their intermittency; if the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, energy is not being produced. Our need for energy is constant and to ensure we can fill this need, cheap, grid-scale batteries are needed to store excess wind and solar energy, thereby providing constant energy regardless of the weather.
Currently, lithium-ion batteries are the most widely used battery for renewable energy storage. However, lithium-ion batteries come with a set of major problems including the unsustainable mining of lithium, the battery’s thermal instabilities which can lead to explosions, and lithium’s toxicity to living beings. In contrast to lithium-ion batteries, Redox Flow Batteries (RFBs) are posed to offer a more sustainable solution for grid-scale energy storage as they are cheaper, more stable, and can be made using less toxic materials than lithium-ion batteries.
Image Credits: DTU (Peter Aagaard Brixen)
RFBs consist of two tanks containing electrolytes and a stack. One tank holds the electrolyte which is responsible for the donation of electrons, the negolyte, and the other tank, the reception of the electrons, the posolyte. The stack is where the donation and reception of electrons takes place. When charging, electrons flow from the posolyte to the negolyte and when discharging, electrons flow from the negolyte to the posolyte. While discharging, electrons go out and do work such as turning on a lightbulb.
Image Credits: Sørensen, Jens Laurids
The most widely known electrolyte used for RFBs is the transition metal vanadium as it can be used as both a posolyte and a negolyte. However, vanadium is a limited resource and comes with a large CO2 footprint. (2) In contrast, phoenicin can be synthesized in a lab using the fungi Penicillium atrosanguineum, “is water-soluble in an alkaline solution, and  when the battery is depleted, you can pour the solution down the drain, after which the phoenicin is easily degraded.” (3) Phoenicin is also well suited to be both the negolyte and the posolyte in an RFB. (1)
One of the challenges faced by working with phoenicin in this capacity is that it easily degrades and therefore has a much shorter battery life than that of an electrolyte such as vanadium. Jens Muff, a colleague of Jans Laurids Sørensen who is also an Associate Professor at Aalborg University working on the fungal electrolyte, says recharging a phoenicin RFB battery tens of thousands of times may be possible “by changing [phoenicin’s] structure through the biochemical synthesis pathway or by combining it with a final chemical modification.” He goes on to say that they will be collaborating with a group from the Technical University of Denmark to explore the latter possibility. (3)
The next big milestone for this work is increasing the rate of phoenicin synthesization, as this will allow them to begin to scale the battery. Currently the size of the electrolyte tanks is 15 or 20 mL but to make this application practical, the battery needs to have a total tank capacity of 1000s of liters. The group is hoping to take 5 years to get to this “real-world” scale. (1)
Virki, Tarmo, host. “Making Batteries From Fungi With Jens Sørensen.” The NatureBacked Podcast, 12 Dec. 2023. https://naturebacked.com/episode/making-batteries-from-fungi-with-jens-sorensen
C. O. Wilhelmsen, S. B. Kristensen, O. Nolte, I. A. Volodin, J. V. Christiansen, T. Isbrandt, T. Sørensen, C. Petersen, T. E. Sondergaard, K. Lehmann Nielsen, T. O. Larsen, J. C. Frisvad, M. D. Hager, U. S. Schubert, J. Muff, J. L. Sørensen. Demonstrating the Use of a Fungal Synthesized Quinone in a Redox Flow Battery. Batteries & Supercaps 2023, 6, e202200365. doi:10.1002/batt.202200365
Sjøgren, Kristen. “Metabolites from fungi could replace vanadium in batteries.” sciencenews.dk, 21 Aug. 2023, https://sciencenews.dk/en/metabolites-from-fungi-could-replace-vanadium-in-batteries
Contributing Author: April Kissinger
April is a fungi fanatic that has held a number of diverse STEM positions over the past 12 years. She is currently devoting her time to studying our fungal friends as she feels the future begins with “Myco!