I wrote a piece several years ago that touched on the topic of batteries being the one piece of technology that has not improved at the same rate as other parts of technology such as the microprocessor, and despite all of the advancements in lithium-ion battery technology since then, including ones I have written about recently, not much has actually changed. However, researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and Department of Materials Science and Engineering are working to change that.
We currently utilize a single battery source to power all of the billions of transistors that make up the technology that fuels modern life like mobile devices, wearables, vehicles, and even things like pacemakers. The problem with that is that as that power is sent to each transistor and discrete component, a small portion of the power is lost. At the moment, this is not that big of an issue, but as electronic devices pack more processing power into more devices, the need for longer battery life will return. One way that the teams at MIT are looking to solve this issue is to make devices more efficient by connecting nano-batteries to each transistor within an integrated circuit, a seemingly impossible task with current technology.
Recently the team of researchers announced that they have made some headway in the development of nanoscale hydrogen-fueled batteries that utilize water-splitting technology to store energy. These tiny batteries are able to charge much faster than some other nanoscale battery concepts, are more efficient, and feature a longer lifespan, all while being able to be fabricated at room temperature in a much more environmentally friendly process than even the smallest lithium-ion batteries of today.
"Batteries are one of the biggest problems we’re running into at the Laboratory," says Raoul Ouedraogo, who is from Lincoln Laboratory’s Advanced Sensors and Techniques Group and is the project's principal investigator. "There is significant interest in highly miniaturized sensors going all the way down to the size of a human hair. We could make those types of sensors, but good luck finding a battery that small. Current batteries can be round like coin cells, shaped like a tube, or thin but on a centimeter scale. If we have the capability to lay our own batteries to any shape or geometry and in a cheap way, it opens doors to a whole lot of applications."
The new nanoscale hydrogen batteries work by interacting with water molecules in the air surrounding the battery. When a water molecule touches the outer metal skin of the battery, that molecule is split into its key components, one oxygen atom, and two hydrogen atoms. The hydrogen atoms are then trapped inside the battery and are stored there until there is a demand for energy. When that battery needs to be used, the process is reversed, with the hydrogen atoms being recombined with an oxygen atom from the surrounding air. Using this technique, researchers have managed to develop batteries just 50-nanometers thick, that’s just 5% the thickness of a human hair. Additionally, the team has shown that these batteries can be scaled from that 50-nanometer size up to several centimeters. If that was not enough for you, the research has also shown that these hydrogen-based batteries can store energy at a density of more than two orders of magnitude greater than current battery technology.
"A useful feature of this technology is that the oxide and metal layers can be patterned very easily into nanometer-scale custom geometries, making it straightforward to build intricate battery patterns for a particular application or to deposit them on flexible substrates," says Annie Weathers, a staff member of the laboratory’s Chemical, Microsystem, and Nanoscale Technologies Group, who is also involved in the project, along with MIT Professor Geoff Beach and graduate students Aik Jun Tan and Sara Sheffels of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
I want to know what you think! Do you think that one day we will have 10-billion nanoscale hydrogen-based batteries inside of our electronic devices just like we do transistors today? What other technology could benefit from this breakthrough? Could we one day see these batteries inside of biomedical devices? Could they be used to power nano-robots? Let me know by leaving a comment!