Intelligent Energy

3D nano-structure gives batteries a quicker charge

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An ideal battery would charge quickly, store a lots of energy, and release it quickly. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offer a potential way to bring such batteries into our gadgets, cars, military and even, our hearts.

An ideal battery would charge quickly, store a lot of power, and release that power quickly. Unfortunately, that's a tall order for current battery options. This leaves us waiting around while our gadgets juice up and gives some of us anxiety about traveling far in electric cars.

But a different kind of electrode might give battery power a boost.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have created a "3D battery" that they say can charge 10 to 100 times faster than their current counterparts, without sacrificing storage capacity and performance. Imagine a lithium-ion battery becoming 90-percent charged in two minutes.

According to the researchers, their 3D nanostructure combines the desirable traits of a battery and an ultracapacitor. Lithium-ion and nickel metal hydride batteries can hold fairly large amounts of energy, but rapid charges and discharges wear on them. Conversely, ultracapacitors can quickly take in and release a charge, but can hold only about 5 percent of the energy that some batteries can.

The thin film of electrically active material within a re-chargeable battery allows for speedy ion and electron transport, but the thinner the material, the less the amount of energy the battery can hold. Published yesterday in Nature Nanotechnology, the research entails wrapping the battery's thin film into a 3D nanostructure. The sponge-like structure (seen in production stages below) increases the film's surface area, allowing for more storage capacity.

The processes to create the structure are inexpensive and already used on larger scales, say the researchers. Also fortunate is the structure's versatility. The study only touches upon Li-ion and NiMH batteries, but according to the scientists, their electrode could suit many battery types.

Paul Braun, a professor of material science and engineering who leads the research group, says in a statement:

We like that it's very universal, so if someone comes up with a better battery chemistry, this concept applies. This is not linked to one very specific kind of battery, but rather it's a new paradigm in thinking about a battery in three dimensions for enhancing properties.

In addition to laptops and phones, the 3D electrode might help improve military packs, electric cars, lasers and defibrillators.

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Image: L. Brian Stauffer

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure