The Michigan Engineer News Center

Cartilage could be key to safe ‘structural batteries’

The new prototype cells can run for more than 100 cycles at 90 percent capacity and withstand hard impacts and even stabbing.| Medium Read
EnlargeAhmet Emre in the lab
IMAGE:  Ahmet Emre, a biomedical engineering PhD candidate, sandwiches a thin sheet of a cartilage-like material between a layer of zinc on top and a layer of manganese oxide underneath to form the team’s battery. Photo: Evan Dougherty

Your knees and your smartphone battery have some surprisingly similar needs, a University of Michigan professor has discovered, and that new insight has led to a “structural battery” prototype that incorporates a cartilage-like material to make the batteries highly durable and easy to shape.

The idea behind structural batteries is to store energy in structural components—the wing of a drone or the bumper of an electric vehicle, for example. They’ve been a long-term goal for researchers and industry because they could reduce weight and extend range. But structural batteries have so far been heavy, short-lived or unsafe.

In a paper published in ACS Nano, the researchers describe how they made a damage-resistant rechargeable zinc battery with a cartilage-like solid electrolyte. They showed that the batteries can replace the top casings of several commercial drones. The prototype cells can run for more than 100 cycles at 90 percent capacity, and withstand hard impacts and even stabbing without losing voltage or starting a fire.

“A battery that is also a structural component has to be light, strong, safe and have high capacity. Unfortunately, these requirements are often mutually exclusive,” said Nicholas Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Engineering, who led the research.

  • Ahmet Emre and Nicholas Kotov prepare to fly a consumer drone at M-Air with their team’s prototype structural battery replacing the craft’s top cover and wired in parallel with the existing battery. Photo: Evan Dougherty
    Ahmet Emre and Nicholas Kotov prepare to fly a consumer drone at M-Air with their team’s prototype structural battery replacing the craft’s top cover and wired in parallel with the existing battery. Photo: Evan Dougherty
  • Emre, Kotov and Volkan Cecen, a visiting scholar from Turkey, successfully fly a consumer drone with their team’s structural battery attached in M-Air. Photo: Evan Dougherty
    Emre, Kotov and Volkan Cecen, a visiting scholar from Turkey, successfully fly a consumer drone with their team’s structural battery attached in M-Air. Photo: Evan Dougherty
  • Emre and Kotov fly a consumer drone with their team’s structural battery attached in M-Air. Photo: Evan Dougherty
    Emre and Kotov fly a consumer drone with their team’s structural battery attached in M-Air. Photo: Evan Dougherty
  • Emre, Kotov and Cecen fly a consumer drone with their team’s structural battery attached in M-Air. Photo: Evan Dougherty
    Emre, Kotov and Cecen fly a consumer drone with their team’s structural battery attached in M-Air. Photo: Evan Dougherty
  • Cecen, Emre and Kotov fly a consumer drone with their team’s structural battery attached in M-Air. Photo: Levi Hutmacher
    Cecen, Emre and Kotov fly a consumer drone with their team’s structural battery attached in M-Air. Photo: Levi Hutmacher
  • Emre casts a manganese oxide slurry onto a sheet of aluminum foil to serve as the cathode of his team’s prototype structural battery. Photo: Evan Dougherty
    Emre casts a manganese oxide slurry onto a sheet of aluminum foil to serve as the cathode of his team’s prototype structural battery. Photo: Evan Dougherty
  • Emre attaches his team’s prototype structural battery to a consumer drone in lieu of the original plastic casing. Photo: Evan Dougherty
    Emre attaches his team’s prototype structural battery to a consumer drone in lieu of the original plastic casing. Photo: Evan Dougherty

Harnessing the properties of cartilage

To side-step these trade-offs, the researchers used zinc—a legitimate structural material—and engineered branched nanofibers that resemble the collagen fibers of cartilage.

“Nature does not have zinc batteries, but it had to solve a similar problem,” Kotov said. “Cartilage turned out to be a perfect prototype for an ion-transporting material in batteries. It has amazing mechanics, and it serves us for a very long time compared to how thin it is. The same qualities are needed from solid electrolytes separating cathodes and anodes in batteries.”

In our bodies, cartilage combines mechanical strength and durability with the ability to let water, nutrients and other materials move through it. These qualities are nearly identical to those of a good solid electrolyte, which has to resist damage from dendrites while also letting ions flow from one electrode to the other.

Dendrites are tendrils of metal that pierce the separator between the electrodes and create a fast lane for electrons, shorting the circuit and potentially causing a fire. Zinc has previously been overlooked for rechargeable batteries because it tends to short out after just a few charge/discharge cycles.

Not only can the membranes made by Kotov’s team ferry zinc ions between the electrodes, they can also stop zinc’s piercing dendrites. Like cartilage, the membranes are composed of ultrastrong nanofibers interwoven with a softer ion-friendly material.

In the batteries, aramid nanofibers—the stuff in bulletproof vests—stand in for collagen, with polyethyleneoxide (a chain-like, carbon-based molecule) and a zinc salt replacing soft components of cartilage.

Demonstrating safety and utility

To make working cells, the team paired the zinc electrodes with manganese oxide—the combination found in standard alkaline batteries. But in the rechargeable batteries, the cartilage-like membrane replaces the standard separator and alkaline electrolyte. As secondary batteries on drones, the zinc cells can extend the flight time by five to 25 percent—depending on the battery size, mass of the drone and flight conditions.

Safety is critical to structural batteries, so the team deliberately damaged their cells by stabbing them with a knife. In spite of multiple “wounds”, the battery continued to discharge close to its design voltage. This is possible because there is no liquid to leak out.

For now, the zinc batteries are best as secondary power sources because they can’t charge and discharge as quickly as their lithium ion brethren. But Kotov’s team intends to explore whether there is a better partner electrode that could improve the speed and longevity of zinc rechargeable batteries.

A paper on this research is published in the journal ACS Nano, titled, “Biomimetic solid-state Zn2+ electrolyte for corrugated structural batteries.” This work was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and National Science Foundation. Kotov teaches in the Department of Chemical Engineering. He is also a professor of materials science and engineering, and macromolecular science and engineering.

Support Chemical Engineering at Michigan
scientists in a lab

If you’re inspired by the research in this story and share our passion for leading this field – help strengthen our efforts.

Ahmet Emre in the lab
Portrait of Kate McAlpine

Contact

Kate McAlpine
Senior Writer & Assistant News Editor

Michigan Engineering
Communications & Marketing

(734) 763-2937

3214 SI-North

Researchers
  • Nicholas Kotov

    Nicholas Kotov

    Joseph B and Florence V Cejka Professor of Engineering, Professor of Chemical Engineering

MORPHEUS blocks potential attacks by encrypting and randomly reshuffling key bits of its own code and data twenty times per second. Getty Images.

New chip stops hacks before they start

MORPHEUS can encrypt and reshuffle code thousands of times faster than human and electronic hackers. | Medium Read