Now even more options to satisfy your sweet tooth

Now even more options to satisfy your sweet tooth

Please complete the following statement with the most correct answer:

As ____________ as Sugar?

(a) Sweet
(b) Conductive
(c) Energy Dense
(d) All of the above

I don't know about you, but when I think of sugar (particularly at this time of year) it can be bittersweet – especially when I'm trying to zip up those skinny jeans. After a holiday season of indulgence – and a box of Valentines Day chocolates within arms reach it's hard to think of sugar as relating to anything other than confections (or correlated with gym memberships).

Let's reframe.

Sugar. Glucose. C6H12O6. Carbon. Building block of starches and carbohydrates galore. Fuel.

Here are some interesting tidbits, food for thought, if you'll indulge me for a minute as we delve a bit deeper into simple sugars.

  • Researchers at Virginia Tech have developed a sugar fuel cell – yes, a fuel cell which runs on sugar – with an energy density potentially an order of magnitude higher than that of lithium-ion batteries. Enzymes are used to remove the charge potentials from the sugar and generate electricity. If commercialized, this fuel cell could be an inexpensive, biodegradable and refillable solution to the billions upon billions of toxic batteries; which pose a threat to both human health and the environment. Gives whole new meaning to the term "energy drink".
  • New research out of a China-Japan partnership are using glucose to create a 3D structured graphene for use in supercapacitors. In simple terms, the sugar is heated until it forms a syrup and is ‘blown' into a 3D self-supported graphene structure. Graphene produced via this method appears to be a bit ‘sweeter' all around; having more surface area, increased conductivity and good mechanical endurance when compared with other 3D graphene structures.
  • Back in 2010, Rice university researchers demonstrated production of graphene from table sugar. While this is interesting for a whole host of reasons, one of the more notable is that it is a relatively low-temperature single-step process. Cost and scaling challenges have continued to constrain the market and hinder commercial adoption.

More broadly, sugars are a feedstock for next generation biofuels and a precursor for sustainably sourced (i.e. non-petroleum based) chemicals. Both topics have been explored in previous posts and can be found here and here.

Given it's importance in a wide cross section of industries from pharmaceuticals to fuels developing a low-cost, scalable, industrial process for the production of sugars is an area of active research. Enzymatic and chemical processes are both being explored – along with combinations of the two. Strong acid hydrolysis, for example, has been employed since the mid 20th century. Where (and how) we source our sugars has important implications for supply chain and industry. As a commodity material, sugar is subject to high volatility, and sugars sourced from cellulosic feedstocks are doubly susceptible due to volatility in feedstock costs. Further, one of the largest challenges to the industrialization of gen 2 sugars is the scale required for economic viability (and large scale often equates with high capital intensity).

For some ubiquitous sweet stuff, sugar has some pretty advanced applications! Next time you're satisfying your sweet tooth "fueling up on sugar" could have a different meaning. It could be fueling the future.

Associate, Pangaea Ventures Ltd. Sarah is an environmental scientist and MBA who has been active in sustainability efforts for York and Dalhousie universities, as well as the City of Toronto's Environment Office.View Sarah Applebaum's profile on LinkedIn


  • Guest
    Rohit Makharia Thursday, 13 February 2014

    Hey.I have been following Pangaea blogs for a while. Entertaining post. So you must be good with multitasking - blogging while attending conference while striking deals ! Cool!

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