One of the key advancements in the 21st-century technological world is the lithium-ion battery. These energy packs make it possible to power and operate mobile phones, electric cars, laptops, health care devices, robots and remote sensors. Earlier this year, the developers behind the lithium-ion batteries were awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry. However, materials scientists are in urgent need of better batteries for the Internet of Things, for the next generation of personal devices and more. Better batteries are also needed when it comes to storing energy from renewable, inconsistent sources, like wind and the sun.
A battery’s performance is usually measured by factors such as energy density, the ability to hold a charge without losing it, the ability for it to recharge thousands or tens of thousands of times, and safety. Battery manufacturers are always careful when trying new approaches to ensure there isn’t a performance drop in the battery. Improvements are usually gradual and small.
According to Vladimir Egorov and his research team at the University of Cork in Ireland, future batteries will be produced via 3D printing. The team has observed new printing techniques for batteries, suggesting that it will make it possible to produce smaller, more capable devices.
Printing 3D batteries will make them much smaller, enabling them to be used in internet of things devices. (Image Credit: University of Cork)
Materials scientists have started testing out new ways to print electronic circuits using polymer inks and silver polymer for traces, which may help to eliminate any need for welding. This allows circuit boards to take any shape, enabling it to be part of a device’s structure. This can be a tough task to complete, especially when it’s necessary to incorporate conventional batteries that come with specific shapes and sizes. Having the ability to print 3D batteries would change it. “If it were possible to print them to integrate them perfectly into the product design, both for aesthetic reasons and for comfort or functionality, the more bulky and fixed standard battery would not have to be included in the product design stage,” Egorov says.
This is a lot more complex to do since the electroactive materials used in batteries are reactive, and structures like anodes and cathodes are physically complex. It can be quite challenging to produce versions of these materials for 3D printing, and even when they’re printed, they must maintain their electrical connections, control chemical reactions between components and ensure batteries can be charged and discharged for many cycles. More importantly, the batteries must be safe and that means all batteries are required to pass strict safety standards before being used in homes, vehicles, airplanes, etc. The test criteria may have to be altered to allow new designs of constant changes.
Another challenge in the battery industry is making their products recyclable. Today’s batteries are designed so that it’s tougher to disassemble them, making it nearly impossible to reuse the valuable materials they contain.
Today’s thinking is that all batteries from the start should be designed with recycling in mind. This will require a new idea from battery designers. Flexibility from 3D printing can help to speed things up when it comes to making batteries recyclable. This is something the battery industry cannot afford to ignore.
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