As design objects, batteries couldn’t be more boring. They are wholly functional, featuring unimaginative square edges and wrapped completely in monotones. Batteries are designed to end up hiding inside something far better-looking, like an iPhone or a Tesla. But, thanks to 3D printing, batteries might soon get their moment in the spotlight. Researchers in South Korea have been experimenting with a new technology that lends itself to a variety of battery shapes, including paper-thin versions that bend, as well as whimsical heart-shaped ones.
The work is more than just an exercise in showing that engineers can be romantic, too. The researchers working on the project at Ulsan National Institute of Science & Technology expect that the new battery shapes will have practical applications, especially in the field of wearable technology. Currently, batteries are limited to certain mundane shapes because they contain liquid electrolytes that shuttle ions and charges between two electrodes. The new batteries use solid electrolytes, giving designers the freedom to play with all kinds of shapes and opening up new possibilities for the design of devices that run on batteries.
To get to this stage, the team had to first design a solid electrolyte with a unique combination of properties: it has the right viscosity for printing, is sufficiently conductive and functions when the battery is fixed to a curved surface or is frequently flexed.
The printable batteries are limited in their function, for now. They can only power small light-emitting diodes and don’t hold a charge long enough for many practical applications. The researchers are now working on improving the power and life of the solid-state batteries by use better lithium-ion materials in production.