New stretchable battery could revolutionize how technology fits to our bodies

Wearables are definitely having a moment. Now Stanford researchers have developed a game-changer; a bendy battery

Swimmer under water wearing a Fitbit Ionic
Traditional wearables are restricted by the rigid batteries they are powered by. Image: Fitbit

Lithium-ion batteries

Most batteries are made from lithium-ion. They already incorporate polymers, which are in the form of electrolyte gels. The polymer gel is the battery element that causes the risk of leakage or high flammability.

Stanford researchers have taken this structure and turned it around. Their new batteries use a polymer in a solid-state, which is stretchable. This means it does not carry the potential of leaking, and yet can still transport the negative ions to the battery’s positive pole.

This sounds like a game-changer, and not just for wearables. In testing, these flexible polymer batteries maintained a steady power output even when stretched to twice their normal size.

At the moment the aspiration behind the tech is to use it for wearables. The Stanford prototype is a tiny thumbnail battery, and stores half of the power of a similarly sized conventional battery.

The concept is to continue developing the prototype to increase the energy density and use it to power sensors against the skin. These could be used for sensors such as mobile heart monitors and completely change the face of wearable tech. Ergonomic fitness watches are just around the corner!

The future of wearables

Wearables are set to be a big focus for 2020. With Google acquiring Fitbit, and Apple partnering with fitness franchise Orangetheory, I anticipate some big new product launches coming in the near distant future.

Stretchable batteries mean developers could design wearable tech in ways that we haven’t ever seen before. Currently, designs are limited by rigid batteries, both in design and in weight. If batteries can be molded and shaped, who says a fitness watch needs to be worn on your wrist?

Healthcare is without a doubt an area where technology is making rapid advancements. The way our healthcare providers operate will doubtless be unrecognizable in a few short years.

The next biggest revolution I can foresee? Batteries.

Graphene
Graphene is lighter, safer and more stable than lithium-ion. Photo: pxfuel

Battery evolution

With our reliance on mobile devices, batteries are a big deal. Whenever we review a new smartphone, one of the important elements is – of course – the size of the battery. How long it lasts, how powerful it is, how quickly it charges and how heavy it is are all important to us as consumers.

We reported last month that five billion people now use mobile phones around the world. Batteries have reduced in value almost as fast as they have in size.

In the six years between 2010 and 2016, the value of a battery pack dived from $1,000 per kWh to just $230.

One of the issues with lithium-ion batteries is their volatility. The potential for the electrolyte gel to explode or ignite is the reason for airline restrictions of any battery device over 100 watts.

But, if we can develop batteries with a much more stable gel, will that make a difference? It will certainly make design more dynamic.

Graphene might be the answer. This extraordinary material is safer than lithium-ion, is much lighter in weight and can store 1,000Wh of energy per kilo compared with 180Wh. It sounds like the perfect replacement; if only it weren’t so very expensive to cultivate.

My money is on technology finding a solution. I’d guess that within three years, all the major smartphone manufacturers will be marketing graphene batteries. What do you think? 

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