Mighty Micro Battery Could Make Electronics Even Smaller

This illustration depicts ions flowing between three-dimensional micro-electrodes in a lithium ion battery. Image courtesy of University of Illinois
This illustration depicts ions flowing between three-dimensional micro-electrodes in a lithium ion battery.

What if your mobile phone was able to go for several weeks on end before it needed to charge back up again from a wall socket? Or how about an electric car that only took a few minutes to replenish its battery when it was near-empty? And here’s the kicker: what if these super batteries came in packages several times smaller than the batteries we have today?

Sounds like a flight into Delusional Thinking Land, right? Well brace yourself, because researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have actually developed such mighty microbatteries in the lab. If these less-than-pint-sized powerhouses ever see the light of use in consumer products, they’ll usher in an epidemic of innovation, to say the least.

William P. King, a University of Illinois professor and lead researcher on the project, said the breakthrough finally brings battery technology up to par with leaps made in other parts of the electronics ecosystem.

“This is a whole new way to think about batteries,” King said in a statement released by the university. “A battery can deliver far more power than anybody ever thought. In recent decades, electronics have gotten small. The thinking parts of computers have gotten small. And the battery has lagged far behind. This is a microtechnology that could change all of that. Now the power source is as high-performance as the rest of it.”

The really big shocker about these batteries (sorry, couldn’t resist) is their ability to deliver copious amounts of both power and energy. Without getting too technical, consider it like the difference between an explosive sprinter and a long-distance endurance runner. When it comes to batteries, typically you have to sacrifice one of these qualities for the other. Or at least make extreme compromises. But researchers say their new design delivers the best of both worlds.

As a result, the devices can be super small, efficient, and more powerful than even a supercapacitor (an electronics component used to store and rapidly discharge electrical current). The researchers offered the hypothetical example of a mobile phone that was the thickness of a credit card and could be charged in less than a second, rather than hours. Likewise, an electric vehicle could charge in possibly five minutes, roughly the same amount of time as filling up at a gasoline pump.

How’s it work? Here’s the short version. The batteries have a three-dimensional microstructure consisting of a metal latticework; this metal frame somewhat resembles a sponge, and is filled with whatever battery chemistry the battery’s designer chooses (nickel metal hydride, lithium ion, or others). Small anode and cathode interconnects allow ions of the chosen battery material to move back and forth quickly.

For the long version, you can check out these two announcements from the University of Illinois, along with the accompanying academic papers to which they link. The work of King’s group builds on the findings of yet another battery boffin at the University of Illinois, Professor Paul Braun.

What does it mean ultimately? At this point, it’s difficult to say for certain. History is littered with announcements of radical advances in energy technology that have failed to reach the market for various reasons – expense, impracticality, and even alleged suppression by threatened corporations.

Let’s hope this one pans out, especially since your tax dollars paid for it if you live in the United States: funding came from the National Science Foundation and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

If this battery technology does make its way to large-scale manufacturing, by parties truly interested in shaking up the current power paradigm, we’ll be in for some mind-blowing applications.