In the quest for smaller and smaller devices, some of our technology has kept pace, while others, such as tiny batteries for mobile devices, have not. But a recent breakthrough of a microbattery the size of a grain of sand hints at the next generation of tiny energy storage devices.
A team of researchers have successfully built a tiny lithium-ion microbattery by using a 3D-printer to precisely print interlaced stacks of electrodes that are thinner than a human hair. The team, based at Harvard University and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, first developed specialized inks that are both electrochemically active (to serve as anodes and cathodes in the battery) and able to be used in an extrusion-based 3D-printer, while also being capable of hardening immediately.
“To accomplish these goals, the researchers created an ink for the anode with nanoparticles of one lithium metal oxide compound, and an ink for the cathode from nanoparticles of another. The printer deposited the inks onto the teeth of two gold combs, creating a tightly interlaced stack of anodes and cathodes. Then the researchers packaged the electrodes into a tiny container and filled it with an electrolyte solution to complete the battery.”
“In this video, a 3D-printer nozzle narrower than a human hair lays down a specially formulated “ink” layer by layer to build a microbattery’s anode from the ground up. Unlike ink in an office inkjet printer, which comes out as droplets of liquid and wets a piece of paper, these 3D-printer inks are specially formulated to exit the nozzle like toothpaste from a tube, then immediately harden into layers as narrow as those produced by thin-film manufacturing methods. In addition, the inks contain nanoparticles of a lithium metal oxide compound that give the anode the proper electrical properties.”
While we probably won’t be seeing these microbatteries in our gadgets in the very near future, this innovation in battery construction may have a huge impact on the continuing trend of the miniaturization of devices ranging from medicine and health applications to remote sensors and cellphones.
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