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Essential Science: Self-assembly battery charges in seconds

Mobile technology is increasingly common place. This is seen with the myriad of applications available and the fact that most people are opting to access news, video and other content online through various multi-channels.

But as technology as simultaneously been shrunk and made more powerful – in terms of what it is capable of – battery power has lagged behind. Apart from tiny incremental improvements in solid-electrolyte efficiency, lithium ion polymer batteries for handheld tech products haven’t changed drastically in more than 15 years.

Business and consumers want it faster

While consumers and businesses want things faster, and more sophisticated such as through the Internet of Things, they also need faster charging of electronic devices.

To address this a new type of battery is in development. This is being spearheaded at Cornell University through a cross-functional group led by Professor Ulrich Wiesne. The project is developing a novel energy storage device architecture with the potential for lightning-quick charges.

The idea is novel. In place of having a battery’s’ anode and cathode positioned on either side of a nonconducting separator, the group’s approach has been to intertwine the components in a self-assembling, three-dimensional gyroidal structure. This structure contains thousands of nanoscale pores, each of which is packed with the elements necessary for energy storage and delivery.

A truly revolutionary battery architecture

Commenting on this alternative concept, Professor Wiesner stated to R&D Magazine: “This is truly a revolutionary battery architecture.”

He goes onto explain the technological basis to the new battery: “This three-dimensional architecture basically eliminates all losses from dead volume in your device. More importantly, shrinking the dimensions of these interpenetrated domains down to the nanoscale, as we did, gives you orders of magnitude higher power density.”

The architectural aspect of the battery resembles a block copolymer self-assembly. This has previously been used for a gyroidal solar cell. By ‘gyroidal ‘, this means thin films of carbon. The application with such self-assembling photonic devices inspired the research group to consider if the same concept could be applied to carbon materials for use as energy storage devices.

As to what this means, by miniaturizing the dimensions of these interpenetrated domains right down to the nanoscale, this provides orders of magnitude of higher power density. This would enable a person who is operating a mobile device to access the energy in a far shorter time frame than can be achieved with any conventional battery.

Just how fast it?

So, how fast is fast? Professor Wiesner explains that this is a product of the dimensions of the battery’s core elements being reduced down to nanoscale levels. This means: “by the time you put your cable into the socket, in seconds, perhaps even faster, the battery would be charged.”

Three converted Prius Plug-In Hybrids Charging at San Francisco City Hall public recharging station

Three converted Prius Plug-In Hybrids Charging at San Francisco City Hall public recharging station
Felix Kramer (CalCars).

The architecture has been developed as a proof of concept. There are still challenges ahead before the new battery concept can be commercialized. Factors to address include volume changes during discharging. Moreover, by charging the battery rapidly it will gradually degrade. The researchers are committed to perfecting the method. A patent has been applied for.

The research has been published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, which is published by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The paper is titled “Block Copolymer Derived 3-D Interpenetrating Multifunctional Gyroidal Nanohybrid for Electrical Energy Storage.”

Essential Science

Laser pens or pointers

Laser pens or pointers
Wikepedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This article is part of Digital Journal’s regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we looked at ocular lasers, which are based on an ultra-thin membrane laser using organic semiconductors. These have a variety of security applications.

Then week before we reported how scientists have uncovered hints of a time crystal. This is a crystalline form of matter that ‘ticks’ when exposed to an electromagnetic pulse. The location of the discovery is almost as unusual as the discovery itself.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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