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Row of powerpack units at the Southern California Edison Mira Loma Substation.

Batteries in Ontario, California, store renewable energy for release when demand is high. The price of such systems could fall thanks to the development of an electrolyte for calcium-based batteries. Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty

Energy

How a cheap mineral could make a better battery — and help the planet

Calcium could replace lithium in batteries that store solar and wind power.

A newly synthesized chemical could pave the way for the manufacture of calcium-based batteries, which might be safer and cheaper than today’s lithium-based models.

The lithium-ion batteries in mobile phones and other electronic devices have numerous drawbacks: they sometimes catch fire, and they depend on increasingly scarce and toxic substances such as lithium and cobalt.

Batteries with anodes made of calcium — a more abundant substance — might be more sustainable and safer than batteries with lithium anodes. But researchers working on calcium batteries have lacked a suitable electrolyte, the medium through which electrical charge flows inside a battery.

Zhirong Zhao-Karger at the Helmholtz Institute Ulm in Germany and her colleagues reacted a calcium compound with a fluorine-containing compound to create a new type of calcium salt. The resulting material conducted electricity more effectively than any calcium-based electrolyte yet reported. It also efficiently conducted ions at a higher voltage than other calcium-based electrolytes.

Calcium-based batteries could be used in industrial-scale systems to store wind and solar energy.

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Neuroscience

Ants shrink their brains for motherhood — but can enlarge them when egg-laying ends

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Atmospheric science

Smoke from Australian fires turned up the heat in the southern sky

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Optics and photonics

One screen, three images — some invisible in ordinary light

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