Science and Technology News

Friday, June 29, 2012

Working On Full Charge

We all know the routine.

You buy the battery pack of 150 thinking you’ll never need another battery ever again!  Then three months later you’re cursing the universe because your XBOX 360 remote needs two batteries and the only one you’ve managed to find is a suspicious-looking, partially gnawed AA you found under the couch.

And let us not even get into the arduous process of actually having to dispose of them.

And sure, you could make the argument that rechargeable batteries are the more responsible way to go, but I find that I have trust issues when it comes to those things.  The more they get used, the less useful they seem to be.

Ah, but fear not, battery-users!  Scientists from the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) are working to improve the life and power of batteries.  How are they doing that?  It all comes down to the science of energy.

ARL researchers have developed a substance that increases the life of a battery by 30% without increasing the weight.  The new technology deals with the electrolyte part of lithium-ion batteries.  By modifying the liquid electrolytes, the battery is able to tolerate higher voltages.

So why are they doing this?  Well, the Army wants to increase the cell voltage of lithium ion batteries, but still maintain their reliability.  Get the best of both worlds, so to speak.  Sounds too good to be true?

Surprisingly, it isn’t.

“The idea is with higher voltage batteries we can increase the energy density, which means that the soldiers can carry less weight into the field, but still have the same amount of energy carrying with them,” said Dr. Arthur Von Cresce, materials scientist with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.  Cresce is a part of the team that helped develop the substance that helped improve the electrolyte performance in batteries.

And that’s no small feat.

“Electrolytes are a very vulnerable component to the battery,” Dr. Cresce explains.  “We are modifying the electrolytes so we can tolerate higher voltages.  Through that, we accomplish the goal of higher energy density.”

This is a holistic approach to restructuring the way a battery works that goes beyond the military.  Battery use is an everyday part of our lives.  There’s a movement in the military to “go green”– and lithium batteries would be “definitely the way to go” with that, according to Dr. Cresce.

However, lithium batteries do have certain problems.  They don’t work well at low temperatures, and they’re heavy.  If you buy a hybrid car, that thing has a 600 pound battery pack.  Changing the weight of batteries, and eventually how they work, could make a world of difference (pun intended, of course).

Making this a reality across the global board is more than just tweaking a little piece here or improving an electrolyte there, it’s a team effort.  And by that I mean when it comes to batteries, all the components work in unison.  That means they have to be engineered together.

“We work as a team.  I’m working with Kang Xu [a scientist at the Army Research Laboratory] on the liquid electrolytes.  But we work together with other departments and specialists.  We all advance, but we only advance together,” said Dr. Cresce.

The environmental impact of these batteries remains the same as it would for its lesser efficient counterparts, but having a more efficient and lighter battery on the battlefield could actually improve the life and health of service members.

“It’s my understanding that soldiers have to carry between 16-30 pounds of batteries, and that’s because they have a lot of different battery operated devices, like a GPS, communicator, laser sight, night vision, etc.   If we increase the energy density, we can reduce the amount of weight that they carry,” Cresce says.

Researchers estimate that they could reduce the payload carry of a service member by about ten pounds, and if anyone’s carted around 80-90 lbs of weight in blistering heat and scorching desert, ten pounds off could make a big difference.

“It’s a big deal to take some weight off their backs,” Cresce adds.  “We’re trying to shrink the overall bulk size of batteries [as well], while maintaining safety and reliability.  Reliability is the big one for us.  These guys are using these in abusive conditions.”

Right now, they’re limited in the shapes of sizes of cells, but Cresce is hopeful for the future.  “In the future I see really small or conformal, even flexible batteries.”

As amazing as this all is, I still find myself skeptical when the words “rechargeable” are coupled with the word “battery”.

I thought you said you would be there for me! *sob*

Dr. Cresce is no stranger to my hesitancy.   “We all suffer from this.  As our laptops and cell phones age, the batteries hold less charge.  So typically the soldiers don’t trust these batteries.  What we’re finding is with our modifications, the batteries can have more cycles at a higher voltage.  They retain their charge. If they’re left alone, if they’re charged many times, they’re still reliable.”

And the conceptual energy-efficient ideas don’t stop with the battery.

“ARL does a lot of fundamental research, so a lot of these issues of finding fuel wherever you can or using these very simple systems comes down to what kind of fundamentals and materials you understand, and we’re very good at that here,” he says.

Some of this sustainable energy technology is already being implemented in the field with the warfighter.  There are blanket solar cells and portable solar cells currently being used on posts and bases in Afghanistan, and the ARL is looking into developing fuel cell electric generation technology that could revolutionize the way the military harnesses energy in the future.

When it comes down to it, this goes way beyond having a more convenient battery for video games controllers or equipment in the field.  This kind of science could shape the future of energy-efficiency.

“I think it’s kind of interesting that we [the Army] have the chance to affect the world and the science of batteries.  We’re really at the cutting edge of lithium ion and fuel cell and solar research,” Dr. Cresce said with an upbeat lift in his tone.  “This is a really cool place to be.”

———- Information for this blog post provided by the Army Research Laboratory

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