Self-healing batteries generate advancements in technology

By Samantha Schrage, Staff writer

Many may notice that over time, a cell phone’s battery life slowly decreases. Although this is often attributed to the phone’s age, the decrease in battery life is caused by a much more scientific process.

As is the case with almost all electronics, as time progresses the lithium-ion batteries that power these devices develop small micro-cracks, causing them to lose capacity, and as a result lose battery life.

Professor Scott White and his team of 13 students are changing the life capacity of lithium-ion batteries by developing technology that heals those micro-cracks as they form. Not only is the research team hoping to prolong the life of lithium-ion batteries, but they also hope to make them safer to use.

The “self-healing” batteries function and act as normal batteries would, but incorporate microcapsules into the battery electrodes that are triggered under certain environmental conditions. The healing process is very similar to blood healing a wound. The microcapsules are triggered when the micro-cracks form, and either release a conductive healing agent to repair the damage or release a fire retardant to prevent combustion of the battery.

The batteries are developed as part of the Department of Energy-sponsored research centered on next-generation lithium-ion batteries. The research team works anywhere from five to 10 hours per week and conducts several experiments to ensure that these batteries will perform in real-life situations.

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    “We develop the batteries using rigorous testing procedures in our labs at the Beckman Institute. We simulate real-world conditions and charge-discharge cycles to see how long the batteries can last with, and without, our technology,” Tony Griffin, a Ph.D. candidate in materials science and engineering, wrote in an email.

    Aside from the microcapsules, the batteries function as any normal battery would, and plan to replace the existing lithium-ion batteries used in today’s technology.

    “This is a major positive aspect of our work, because we can easily incorporate our technology into existing commercial battery designs and manufacturing processes,” Griffin wrote.

    The impact of these new lithium-ion batteries on the technology industry does not go unnoticed. In addition to battery life, the safety of lithium-ion batteries is one of the most urgent issues facing the technology industry today.

    “We are also developing an autonomic shutdown technology which shuts down lithium-ion batteries when they get too hot, preventing them from exploding or setting on fire. That technology could save billions of dollars and even lives,” Griffin wrote.

    These lithium-ion batteries also have the power to change the automobile industry, specifically the battery capacity and safety of electric cars.

    “The lack of capacity (and retention of capacity) limits the utility of electric vehicles. The next generation of battery electrodes that can deliver increased range (capacity) suffer dramatic capacity degradation. Our technology can make these new materials a viable solution for electric cars,” Scott White, professor of aerospace engineering and faculty entrepreneurial fellow, wrote in an email.

    The research project is part of the College of Engineering’s Faculty Entrepreneurial Fellows program, for which Professor White was selected this year. The program allows White to teach and mentor 13 students from the College of Engineering and the College of Business. Together, the research group will be able to bring their technology to the commercial market.

    “My goal is to launch a new company by the end of the year that will take this research and bring it to the commercial market. Hopefully, some of the students involved in the class will be inspired to continue with the company afterwards and will have the skills and the confidence to start their own companies down the road,” White wrote.

    The research the students are conducting not only allows them to learn from Professor White and from each other, but also inspires them to work toward their professional goals and realize that the work they are doing can make a difference in people’s everyday lives.

    “I have been very interested in start-ups and entrepreneurship over the past few years, and I think this work will give me the experience necessary to bring promising and helpful high-tech research out of the labs and into the hands and homes of people everywhere,” Griffin wrote.

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