WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
We think of batteries as having a common fixed shape, but structural batteries can be any shape and they’re the future …
There have been thousands of battery and energy breakthroughs recently – literally. Now though a breakthrough with biomorphic batteries, which also go by their other name structural batteries, where the material or object itself, such as this Lamborghini, or this material, or even these bricks, are the battery, could finally let robots like ATLAS, the most advanced humanoid robot, to store up to 72 times more energy in a way that’s similar to how we humans store energy in the fat reserves in our bodies.
Researchers at the University of Michigan in the US who were funded by the US Department of Defense have announced they’ve developed a new rechargeable zinc battery that integrates into the structure of a robot in order to free up space and reduce weight that conventional Lithium-Ion (LiON) batteries create.
“Robot designs are restricted by the need for batteries that often occupy 20 per cent or more of the available space inside a robot, or account for a similar proportion of the robot’s weight,” said Nicholas Kotov, a professor of engineering who led the research.
“[Humans] don’t have a single sac of fat, which would be bulky and require a lot of costly energy transfer. Distributed energy storage, which is the biological way, is the way to go for highly efficient biomorphic devices.”
Biomorphic technology is based on living forms and systems, and is therefore ideal for humanoid robots being developed to work and operate within environments designed for humans.
The use of structural batteries can also be used in everything from drones to delivery robots, with Professor Kotov claiming the new zinc batteries could double the range of such robots immediately.
“This is not the limit, however,” said Mingqiang Wang, a visiting researcher at Professor Kotov’s lab. “We estimate that robots could have 72 times more power capacity if their exteriors were replaced with zinc batteries, compared to having a single lithium-ion battery.”
The zinc battery works by storing and transferring energy through an electrolyte membrane made of carbon-based nanofibres and a water-based polymer gel. The researchers claim the membrane is more environmentally friendly than traditional batteries and are not susceptible to causing fires.
Tests have already been carried out on robotic toys shaped like worms and scorpions, where the zinc batteries were wired into the motors and wrapped around the outsides of the robot insects.
Ahmet Emre, a doctoral student who was involved in the research, said: “Batteries that can do double duty – to store charge and protect the robot’s organs – replicate the multifunctionality of fat tissues serving to store energy in living creatures.”
A paper detailing the breakthrough, titled ‘Biomorphic structural batteries for robotics’, was published in the journal Science Robotics.