Researchers at the University of British Columbia have created what could be a big deal for the future of wearable devices.
A PhD student, a postdoctoral fellow and an electrical and computer engineering professor at UBC recently released details of their new flexible, wearable battery. Unlike normal batteries, which use internal layers encased in a rigid exterior, the UBC team made the key compounds—in this case, zinc and manganese dioxide—stretchable by grinding them into small pieces and then embedding them in a rubbery plastic.
The battery is made from several ultra-thin layers of these polymers wrapped inside a casing of the same polymer. This construction creates an airtight, waterproof seal that ensures the integrity of the battery through repeated use. The researchers also found the battery works even when twisted or stretched to twice its normal length, or after being tossed in the laundry.
“Wearable electronics are a big market and stretchable batteries are essential to their development,” says team member Dr. Ngoc Tan Nguyen. “However, up until now, stretchable batteries have not been washable. This is a critical addition if they are to withstand the demands of everyday use.”
It was team member Bahar Iranpour who suggested throwing the battery in the wash to test its seal. So far, the battery has withstood 39 wash cycles and the team expects to further improve its durability as they continue to develop the technology.
“We put our prototypes through an actual laundry cycle in both home and commercial-grade washing machines. They came out intact and functional and that’s how we know this battery is truly resilient,” says Iranpour.
The choice of zinc and manganese dioxide chemistry also confers another important advantage.
“We went with zinc-manganese because for devices worn next to the skin, it’s a safer chemistry than lithium-ion batteries, which can produce toxic compounds when they break,” says Nguyen.
Work is under way to increase the battery’s power output and cycle life, but already the innovation has attracted commercial interest. The researchers believe that when the new battery is ready for consumers, it could cost the same as an ordinary rechargeable battery.
“The materials used are incredibly low-cost, so if this is made in large numbers, it will be cheap,” says the project’s supervisor Dr. John Madden.
In addition to watches and patches for measuring vital signs, the battery might also be integrated with clothing that can actively change colour or temperature.
“Wearable devices need power. By creating a cell that is soft, stretchable and washable, we are making wearable power comfortable and convenient.”
The battery is described in a new paper published recently in Advanced Energy Materials.