London, October 18 : Portuguese chemists have created what they call an ion jelly that could make a range of electrochemical devices, including batteries, fuel cells and solar cells, which are cheaper and more environmentally friendly.
According to a report in New Scientist, the jelly is made by dissolving gelatine in an ionic liquid - a solution made up entirely of negatively and positively charged ions.
Ionic liquids conduct electricity and are generally very stable, non-flammable and non-volatile. That makes them attractive as environmentally friendly replacements for materials normally used as the electrolytes that separate the positive and negative electrodes in electrochemical devices, such as batteries.
But, such electrolytes must usually be solid, and turning ionic liquids into solid form, by combining them with polymers or nanotubes, is challenging and expensive.
Ion jelly could be the answer, according to scientists led by Susana Barreiros from the New University of Lisbon.
Ion jelly was a chance discovery made while mixing a range of natural polymers, including gelatine, into ionic liquids.
Gelatine is derived from the fibrous protein collagen, found in the skin, bones and tendons of animals.
As anyone who has ever made jelly will know, it dissolves in hot water into a solution that sets into jelly when cooled.
Barreiros and her colleagues found that exactly the same thing happens when gelatine dissolves in ionic liquids.
"All of a sudden, we had arrived at something we were not trying to achieve, a material with very interesting properties," Barreiros told New Scientist.
The researchers immediately showed that ion jelly conducts electricity, although only around half as well as the parent ionic liquid.
But, this was enough to use in simple circuits and even to manufacture a small electrochemical device.
Ion jelly electrolyte carries current to a transparent sheet that changes from clear to opaque when electric current is applied.
The researchers are currently experimenting with different "flavours" of ion jelly, made using different ionic liquids, and say it should be possible to match the performance of existing, less stable, electrolytes.
James Wishart, who works with ionic liquids at the US Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, envisages a range of uses for ion jellies.
"Because of their jelly-like properties, these materials fill a gap between electrolyte solutions and (existing) rubbery ionic liquid/nanotube/polymer composites," he said.
"They have applications in flexible devices and in disposable sensors with low environmental impact," he added.