Researchers have demonstrated a flat, “stretchy” battery that can be pulled to three times its size without a loss in performance.
While flexible and stretchable electronics have been on the rise, powering them with equally stretchy energy sources has been problematic.
The new idea in Nature Communications uses small “islands” of energy-storing materials dotted on a stretchy polymer.
The study also suggests the batteries can be recharged wirelessly.
In a sense, the battery is a latecomer to the push toward flexible, stretchable electronics. A number of applications have been envisioned for flexible devices, from implantable health monitors to roll-up displays.
But consumer products that fit the bendy, stretchy description are still very few – in part, because there have been no equally stretchy, rechargeable power sources for them.
“Batteries are particularly challenging because, unlike electronics, it’s difficult to scale down their dimensions without significantly reducing performance,” said senior author of the study John Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“We have explored various methods, ranging from radio frequency energy harvesting to solar power,” he added.
In recent years, Prof. John Rogers worked with colleagues at Northwestern University, focusing on stretchy electronics of various sorts made using what they termed a “pop-up” architecture. The idea uses tiny, widely spaced tiny circuit elements embedded within a stretchy polymer and connected with wires that “popped up” as the polymer was stretched.
But batteries do not lend themselves to this idea; traditionally they are much larger than other circuit elements. They could be made from smaller elements wired together, but to create a small battery with sufficient power, the elements must be spaced more closely than those of the pop-up circuits.
The team’s new idea was to use “serpentine” connections – wires that loop back on themselves in a repeating S shape, with that string of loops itself looped into an S shape.
Stretching out the polymer in which the tiny solar cells were embedded first stretches out the larger S; as it is stretched further, the smaller turns straighten – but do not become taut, even as the polymer was stretched to three times its normal size.
The team says the stretchy battery can be charged “inductively” – that is, wirelessly over a short distance. Prof. John Rogers said that the uses for such batteries and the stretchy circuits they power were myriad.
“The most important applications will be those that involve devices integrated with the outside of the body, on the skin, for health, wellness and performance monitoring,” he explained.
However, the prototype batteries described in the paper were only run through 20 charge/discharge cycles, and Prof. John Rogers said that “additional development efforts to improve the lifetime will be required for commercialization”.