Every 19 gallons of petroleum we refine leaves behind a half pound of sulfur byproduct—far more than we can even pretend to have use for. Luckily, some ingenious researchers at the University of Arizona, may have devised a solution that transforms the rancid yellow element into a new breed of battery.
Lithium-ion batteries are the de facto rechargeable energy storage system today—powering everything from cell phones to 787s—but there is a limit to how much energy it can hold (and, as anyone with a dead phone can tell you, it's never nearly enough). However, a new process described in the journal Nature Chemistry dubbed "inverse vulcanization" could usher in a new generation of secondary batteries that run on sulfur rather than lithium.
Researchers from the University of Arizona, led by Jeffrey Pyun and collaborating with teams from US, South Korean, and German institutions, created the new polymers from liquid sulfur mixed with a small portion of an unnamed additive—the opposite of the vulcanization process where sulfur is the additive, hence the name. The sulfur polymer is already attracting attention from battery and automobile manufacturers in use as cathode material. Doing so could revolutionize Li-S battery technology, which, while it provides superior specific capacities and lower self-discharge rates to Li-ion, the solid sulfur cathodes currently used only last a few recharges.
There's no word on when or if the technology will ever reach market but you'll know it when you smell it.