Yet Another Energy Storage Improvement Coming, Thanks To “Weirdly Exciting” New Substance
Energy storage is already accelerating the transition to wind and solar energy, and things are about to get a little more interesting. Scientists at the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have come up with a new bijel that could have some interesting energy storage applications. They’re still trying to find the right adjectives to describe it, but “weirdly exciting” seems to fit the bill for now.
What, Exactly, Is A Bijel?
Bijel is short for “bicontinuous jammed emulsion gels.” If that sounds somewhat mysterious, it’s really not. You can almost DIY your own bijel right at the dinner table. Here’s the explainer from Berkeley Lab:
Bijels are typically made of immiscible, or non-mixing, liquids. People who shake their bottle of vinaigrette before pouring the dressing on their salad are familiar with such liquids. As soon as the shaking stops, the liquids start to separate again, with the lower density liquid – often oil – rising to the top.
The key word is almost. Those spherical droplets in your vinaigrette bottle are as close to true bijellery as you can get.
The unique feature of bijels is that the two liquids can’t separate. The particles are “jammed” at the interface where they meet. Instead of distinct droplets, they form a web of channels.
That feature provides bijels with a wide range of applications in energy storage and other areas involving catalysis, conductivity, and energy conversion — potentially, that is.
In addition to issues involving the fabrication of bijels, the main catch is that the fluid channels are too wide to be of much use in energy conversion applications.
Cracking The Bijel Conundrum For More And Better Energy Storage
That’s where Berkeley Lab comes in. You can get all the details from the journal Nature Nanotechnology under the title, “Bicontinuous structured liquids with sub-micrometre domains using nanoparticle surfactants.” For those of you on the go, here’s a snippet from the abstract:
A wealth of applications has been proposed for bijels in catalysis, energy storage and molecular encapsulation 3, 4, 5, but large domain sizes (on the order of 5 µm or larger) and difficulty in fabrication pose major barriers to their use 6, 7, 8. Here, we show that bijels with sub-micrometre domains can be formed via homogenization, rather than spinodal decomposition.
Got all that? Lead author Caili Huang provides the plain-language rundown:
Bijels have long been of interest as next-generation materials for energy applications and chemical synthesis. The problem has been making enough of them, and with features of the right size. In this work, we crack that problem.
Spinodal decomposition refers to the separation of a solution into two phases, each with a distinct chemical composition. For whatever reasons, that method typically produces useless bijels.