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Charging our Future

One of the hottest areas of scientific research that peripherally will affect every tech industry is battery research. It seems like every year there are big breakthroughs in battery capability. Today I look at four of the recent announcements.

New Batteries for Robots. Nicholas Kotov at the University of Michigan announced the development of rechargeable zinc batteries that could power robots of all sizes. The batteries use biomorphic technology that creates a membrane between anode and cathode made from Kevlar that mimics cartilage.

The batteries have huge advantages over current lithium batteries in that the materials in the battery are non-toxic and there is no danger of overheating or fires. The batteries are far more efficient, which reduces the weight of the battery needed to power a robot. These batteries can be scaled to power micro-robots or can save weight for large delivery robots. One of the most interesting properties of the batteries is that they can be woven into the outer cover of a robot – freeing space or decreasing the size of the robot.

Safer Lithium Batteries. Scientists at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins have developed a safer lithium-ion battery. Traditional lithium batteries are powered by a flammable combination of lithium salts and toxic chemicals used for the electrolyte, and if the membrane between anode and cathode leaks the batteries can catch on fire. The safer batteries instead use water-based electrolytes which are non-flammable and non-toxic. The new batteries are also about three times more powerful than traditional lithium batteries. The most interesting characteristic of the batteries is that the material can be manufactured to be clear and can be placed in transparent and flexible housing – meaning the battery could be integrated into smart clothing .

Stable Lithium Batteries. Scientists at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science at Harvard have developed a solid-state lithium battery that eliminates the problems with current lithium batteries. They’ve created a solid lithium-metal battery that is stable and won’t overheat. The battery can be recharged up to 10,000 times, meaning it could work in a vehicle for over ten years. The solid battery also charges much faster than today’s car batteries.

The batteries are constructed with multiple alternating layers of lithium, graphite, and a solid electrolyte. One of the most interesting properties of the batteries is that they are self-healing. All lithium batteries deteriorate over time as lithium gets deposited as dendrites – metallic crystals. The structure of the batteries inhibits, and even reverses dendrite formation.

Aluminum-based Batteries. Using technology developed by the University of Queensland Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, the Graphene Manufacturing Group plans to start manufacturing aluminum-based batteries. The graphene aluminum ion batteries are about three times more powerful than traditional lithium batteries and eliminate any possibility of starting fires. The big upside to these batteries is that they can be recharged much faster than lithium batteries.

The technology that makes these batteries work was finding a way to make holes in graphene in such a way to allow the aluminum ions to be stored closer together. Probably the best characteristic of the battery is that it uses widely available and low-cost aluminum and aluminum chloride rather than the more costly lithium which mostly comes from China and Chile. The batteries are effective as tiny coin-sized batteries or can scale up as a replacement for car batteries.

One reply on “Charging our Future”

Technology announcements about what are real breakthroughs precede “products on the shelf” by up to several decades (think SST flights). Did your information give any clue to how soon an ordinary user or the relevant manufacturer might be able to use any one of these bateries?

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