Harvard Team’s Amazing Micro-Battery Breakthrough Using 3D Printing

Mike O'Brien

A team of university researchers have scored a major breakthrough in the development of tiny batteries through the use of 3D printing.

The batteries could power miniscule medical equipment, insect-sized robots and hundreds of other devices.

The group, from Harvard University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, printed interlocking stacks of hair-thin "inks" with the chemical and electrical properties needed for a battery.

The end result was a lithium ion battery the size of a grain of sand. Previous research and development of micro-batteries has involved thin films of solid materials that lacked the juice to power most devices.

Using a custom 3D printer, the researchers produced precise, tight stacks of ultrathin battery electrodes using printable electrochemical inks.

They used one ink for the anode and one for the cathode, each made with nanoparticles of lithium ion metal oxide compounds.

After printing, they put the stacks into a container, added an electrolyte solution, then measured the power of the finished product.

Shen Dillon, a collaborator on the project, said: "The electrochemical performance is comparable to commercial batteries in terms of charge and discharge rate, cycle life and energy densities. We’re just able to achieve this on a much smaller scale."

Jennifer Lewis, currently a professor at Harvard, led the project while at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in collaboration with Mr. Dillon.

Donald Ingber, a professor of of Bioengineering at Harvard, said: "Jennifer’s innovative microbattery ink designs dramatically expand the practical uses of 3D printing, and simultaneously open up entirely new possibilities for miniaturization of all types of devices, both medical and non-medical. It’s tremendously exciting."

3D printing, which is otherwise known as additive manufacturing, was once used largely for prototyping circuit boards and other electronics.

The technology has exploded in the last couple of years, and is now being used for everything from aircraft to flexible displays and guns.

The U.S.Army now has a team of engineers with a 3D printer in Afghanistan and NASA is developing 3D printed food for long space missions.

President Obama has hailed 3D printing as the future of manufacturing and, as prices begin to come down, 3D printers are becoming more accessible to individual innovators.

According to GCN.com, one researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is even looking into 4D with the capability to print objects that change over time.

Watch the Harvard team’s 3D printing video below.

IDGA is currently making preparations for a 3D Printing for Defense summit in December 2013. If you are interested in getting involved please contact Sherene.Asnasyous@idga.org