Electronic Product Design

Tuesday, 17 May 2016 00:00 Written by

The Accidental Battery

17-05-16 green battery 200pxExperiments that go wrong usually result in a negative outcome. This might vary from extremely bad – think explosions, loud booming – to merely having to reset your instruments. Of course, to gauge the success of an experiment, measurement is key. Observing and detailing which variables have changed usually dictates the overall level of comprehension.

So when a research team at the University of California were experimenting with new battery designs, their observed measurements struck them as odd. A battery with an almost entirely new chemical composition proved extremely efficient, retaining its absolute charge potential through a massive amount of cycles. It could be another massive step forward for a battery powered future.

What was different?

Where most modern rechargeable batteries comprise of a chemical combination of lithium, cobalt, iron, manganese, titanium and sulphur (not all together, I must add!), the University of California chemists have created batteries that store electricity in gold nanowires.

The original aim of the experiment was to create a stable solid state battery using an electrolyte gel, rather than the traditional liquid to hold its charge. The liquid is usually a combination of the aforementioned chemicals suspended in a conductive solvent. While these batteries work well, they are easily combustible and present an issue in certain scenarios. As well as this, they lose their maximum charge rating over time, with each discharge/charge cycle reducing the maximum capacity of the chemicals.

The research team initially suspended gold nanowires in the electrolyte gel, with relatively positive results. However, as with other experiments involving gold nanowires and electricity, the team found the nanowires brittle, and prone to cracking. So while the system was more resilient in some ways, it was completely useless in others. PhD candidate Mya Le Thai decided to coat the gold nanowires in manganese oxide, and suddenly the researchers found their battery could cycle hundreds of thousands of times and only lose 5% of its overall charge capacity.

So what's the accident?

Well, despite the exciting outcome of the experiment, the researchers are still in the dark concerning exactly why this happens. Lead researcher, Reginald Palmer said "We started to cycle the devices, and then realised that they weren't going to die. We don’t understand the mechanism of that yet."

The battery in your smartphone may complete 6,000 cycles before you really notice the capacity and ability to hold charge diminish. If you're lucky, that number might stretch to 7,000-7,500. Once lithium batteries reach the edge of the cliff, they are usually irreversibly damaged. Great for the companies dependent on a throwaway society, less so for the consumers having to participate in it. It is costly at best, and wasteful and destructive at worst.

The discovery is exciting for anyone using any portable technology. If the battery could be scaled to power smartphones, laptops, tablets, and more, there would never be a need to replace a battery – only the obsolete technology surrounding it.

Sounds great, right? If the research team can continue their progress, then yes. But they still have to understand how they have arrived at this current junction, and I'm sure anyone with even half a business interest in throwaway batteries will be jolly unhappy about this news.

Fingers crossed.

Image courtesy of digitalart / freedigitalphotos.net.

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