Are 3D printed lithium-ion batteries possible?
It’s true, the lithium-ion battery is the most popular and valuable technology when it comes to energy storage. Recently though, the idea of being able to manufacture lithium-ion batteries using three-dimensional printers has become a possibility.
3D-Printed Lithium-ion Batteries: are they a myth or a reality?
The lithium-ion battery is the most popular and valuable technology when it comes to energy storage in multiple applications: electronics, electric vehicles and even now in the solar industry.
This is because lithium-ion batteries carry high energy and power density values. The market for this technology is expanding as new developments come to light and as they become more efficient and accessible.
Recently, one of those developments came to light this time in the manufacturing sector – and is catching everybody’s attention. After all, the possibility of manufacturing lithium-ion batteries using three-dimensional printers is something to be noticed.
Scientists from the Duke University in North Carolina and from the Texas State University, USA developed a new way to print three dimensional lithium-ion batteries using any arbitrary geometry that would allow the form factor (or shape of the battery) to be customised to fit a particular product design.
Why is this important?
The lithium-ion battery technology consists of a cathode, anode, electrolyte, separator and current collectors that are manufactured in multilayer rolls which are packaged in cylindrical or rectangular cases.
Sometimes, such configuration leads to a negative impact in the battery life or in the design of the product that the battery powers.
For instance, very often the shape and size of a cell phone are designed according to the configuration of the battery.
If the shape of the lithium-ion battery could be customised according to the desires of the designer, while at the same time maximising the energy stored and minimising the size and weight, then a huge revolution in electronics could be expected.
The idea is not new. There have been many attempts to change the form factor of the battery. Technologies like thin paper batteries or spray-paintable batteries have been some of the solutions proposed over the last years.
However, all these proposals are limited to curved or flat surfaces.
3D-printing is different because it enables the creation of complex and multiple 3D objects that allows for quick changes in the design of the battery without making any modifications to the manufacturing process.
In other words, the manufacturer of the lithium-ion battery won’t need to purchase different machines to develop batteries of different sizes and purposes; the only thing they would need is the 3D printer.
Obstacles to printing 3D lithium-ion batteries
In order to customise the form factor according to a specific design, it is necessary for all the components (anode, cathode, current collector, separator and the case) to be 3D printable.
One of the biggest barriers to doing so is the low ionic conductivity of polymers (like the polylactic acid or PLA) that are generally used for 3D printing.
To solve this problem, the scientists developed a procedure that consisted of:
- Mixing different carbonate solvents that swell the polylactic acid and therefore increase the ionic conductivity.
- Measuring the improvement of ionic conductivity on PLA and retaining it by using infusions with lithium salts.
- Finally, they determined the effect of the conductive carbon filler on the printability, capacity and conductivity of the battery.
After testing several combinations of solvents and electrolytes that are generally used in commercial lithium-ion batteries, they came up with a solution that increased the ionic conductivity by up to four times the original value, therefore making the 3D printing of a lithium-ion battery a reality.
After solving the major problem, researchers developed the first 3D lithium-ion battery. The battery was stable around 100 cycles, however, it was 100 times lower than theoretical capacities. The first attempt to print it focused on developing lithium-ion battery cells in the shape of a coin.
Then, the researchers wanted to prove that the 3D printed lithium-ion battery could be used for the production of customisable and wearable electronics. So they printed a battery that was used to power an LED bangle, but the power only lasted about 60 seconds. As you can imagine, that was too far removed from the needs of commercial applications.
The reason for this low capacity was due to the large amount of PLA required to print the cathode and anode, which also resulted in a poor electrical contact.
Another application they found for the 3D printed lithium-ion battery was to power LCD sunglasses. The batteries were connected in series to power an LCD panel that turns dark when a voltage is applied by pressing a switch.
The scientists’ development shows a future of great possibilities for the lithium-ion industry. Changing the paradigm by using a single 3D printer to customize the shape, size, weight and capacity of the battery is definitely an amazing discovery.
Nevertheless, as all R&D projects, it still needs further investigation and development to make this a commercially available option for manufacturers.
The capacity is a crucial factor that has to be drastically increased to be an attractive solution for the commercial sector.
Time will tell if this 3D printed lithium-ion battery stays in R&D or reaches the factories.
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