06 February 2014

Origami: The surprisingly simple secret to creating flexible, high-power lithium-ion batteries

Researchers at Arizona State University have fused the mystical arts of origami with modern materials science to create a high-performance, flexible lithium-ion battery. These batteries can be twisted, bend, and scrunched up multiple times, while retaining the same energy capacity and power output. Perhaps most excitingly, though, the researchers tell me that “all standard electrode materials and packaging technologies are used,” meaning this tech is safe and could theoretically be commercialized in its current form.

One of the biggest remaining problems when it comes to flexible electronics flexible smartphones, e-paper, etc. is the lack of a flexible battery. We have covered some flexible and stretchable batteries on ExtremeTech before, but these have mostly been low-performance, printed or polymer batteries that probably wouldn’t work in commercial applications. The origami battery from Arizona State University, thanks to its use of normal materials and standard LTO/LCO battery chemistry, could finally usher in the era of flexible computing. (Research paper: doi: 10.1038/ncomms4140 “Origami lithium-ion batteries”)

The secret behind the Arizona battery, developed by Hanqing Jiang, Hongyu Yu, and colleagues, is the use of the Miura fold a rigid origami fold that was created by Koryo Miura, originally for the purpose of creating space-saving foldable solar panels for spacecraft. The most common use of the Miura fold is in fold-up maps but even there, because the crease pattern is fairly intricate, it’s not often used. Anyway, the key point is this: The folds allow the battery to be twisted, bent, and compressed without excessive stress being applied to the materials within.

Arizona State University’s origami lithium-ion battery, being bent, twisted, and squeezed

Surprisingly, despite being very flexible, this battery still has comparable performance to a normal, rigid lithium-ion battery. Areal capacity is around 1-2 mAh per square centimeter, but could be increased by adding more active materials. Power density is comparable to normal LIBs. Even after 50 complete folding cycles, the flexible battery retained its performance. (Though admittedly, if we’re talking about a battery that can power a foldable e-paper display, we would need hundreds of folding cycles.)

Moving forward, Arizona’s flexible battery could play a major role in the development of flexible and wearable computers. As it stands, batteries are very rigid, blocky things two terms that, as far as wearables are concerned, equates to ugly and uncomfortable. For example, instead of being forced to place the battery in the face of a smartwatch, a flexible battery could be placed in the watch’s strap. If you want a foldable e-paper display, or perhaps a smartphone that you can fold in two, a flexible battery is very handy.

To think, something as simple as origami an art form that has probably existed for thousands of years might be the key to flexible computing.


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