If you see a group of scientists playing with a blob of Silly Putty, they might not be goofing off, they may be working on a technological breakthrough. That turned out to be the case with researchers at the University of California, Riverside Bourns College of Engineering , who have developed a way to use an ingredient in Silly Putty to improve lithium-ion battery life between charges by three times the industry standard.
Silly Putty came out of the Second World War thanks to an attempt to produce an artificial rubber to make up for wartime shortages. It failed miserably, but the strange substance that’s neither truly liquid or solid; that stretches like chewing gum, yet can be smashed with a hammer; and bounces like a ball, yet oozes like pudding, found its home when it was colored coral, stuffed in a plastic egg, and sold as a toy.
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Though the putty never found an commercial application outside of being a plaything, it was later used for physiotherapy and to keep Apollo astronauts amused on the way to the Moon. In addition, in the early 1950s, a version of Silly Putty was used as an insulator in electronics thanks to its ability to settle into every nook and cranny of a relay unit. Now engineers are looking at the odd substance to improve battery life.
The researchers at the University of California used a modern variant of one of the main ingredients in Silly Putty, silicon dioxide (SiO2) to create a new battery anode. The reasoning behind this is that silicon dioxide is basically powdered quartz and as easy to come by as dirt. It’s also non-toxic and found in everything from children’s toys to fast foods. If it could be adapted for battery manufacture, it would have a great advantage over rarer elements.
The trick was to form this very common substance into more exotic nanotube anodes. That’s because this isn't the first time silicon dioxide has been tried in lithium-ion batteries, but the results previously haven’t been impressive. However, when formed into nanotubes, it produced three times the energy capacity compared to carbon-based anodes. More importantly, such nanotubes can be cycled 100 times and still maintain energy storage.
According to the researchers, the Silly Putty-derived nanotube anodes can be cycled for hundreds of times beyond the tested limits, and they are now working on how to scale the process up to commercial levels.
The teams results have been published in Nature.