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Electronics design is often limited by the shape of the battery – a critical, but frequently uncompromising product component. A new kind of battery conforms to meet the specific shape of a given device.

The battery, developed by the Columbus, OH-based technology R&D company Battelle, won the Consumer category award in this year's ‘Create the Future’ Design Contest.

Steven Risser, Research Leader at Battelle, spoke with Tech Briefs about how the battery innovation could radically impact design as consumers move to smaller, more portable devices.

Tech Briefs: What is a "conformal battery?"

Steven Risser: A conformal battery is a battery that can be shaped to meet the specific form of the device design. Instead of the battery just being a flat brick or a cylinder, it can take on a more complex shape. This does not imply it is flexible and can be bent many times. “Conformal” means it can be formed into this new shape and then remain in that shape.

Tech Briefs: How does your battery improve upon a conventional battery? What are the benefits of this kind of design?

Risser: One advantage to the conformal battery is that it can be incorporated into the structural components of the final product. For example, the conformal battery can be integrated into the handle of a drill or screwdriver, where the battery is within the plastic of the handle, leaving the interior of the handle open for the motor and other electronics. This provides much more latitude for the design, as the device is no longer shaped around the battery, but can be shaped into the most ergonomic/functional form.

Another advantage is that incorporating the battery into the structural component allows the battery to be created without the external packaging that all other batteries have. This allows the conformal battery to weigh 20% less than a conventional battery.

Tech Briefs: What are the materials that enable these conformal properties? Take us through the technology components of the product.

Risser: There are two key technical elements to the technology. One is the separator, which is a thin polymer film between the electrodes. In our technology, the battery is formed into the desired end shape; then the electrodes are laminated, or pressed together. The separator binds to the electrodes, making a more rigid structure.

The second key element is the sealing of the battery. In our technology, the current collectors (the metal foils holding the electrodes) are joined together with a hermetic seal. This allows us to skip the step of wrapping the battery in additional packaging.

Tech Briefs: Where do you see this kind of battery being most useful? What applications are possible?

Risser: There are several areas where we see this battery bringing high value. There are many potential applications in the consumer space where the shape of the battery currently limits the product design, such as power tools or electronics. We also see many potential applications in the medical device space, where the size and shape of the wearable is driven by the shape of the available batteries. We also think there are applications available in defense applications, which is where we originally had targeted the technology.

Tech Briefs: What's next regarding the development?

Risser: Feasibility of the conformal battery has been proven for a specific government application, and we are working with a partner to advance the technology in this space. For commercial applications, we need to determine how small in size we can go and still maintain the advantages of the technology, particularly the weight reduction and the conformability. We are looking for partners to advance the technology in the commercial product market.

Tech Briefs: What is most exciting to you about this kind of product and its possibilities?

Risser: To me, the most exciting aspect of this technology is its ability to radically impact the design of new devices and hardware. Being able to design a device for function and performance, without being constrained by the battery shape, has the potential to significantly improve people’s lives. The potential for this technology will continue to increase as consumers continue to move toward smaller, more portable devices which are less obtrusive and impose fewer constraints on their lives.

What do you think? Will a conformal battery improve design processes? Share your comments below.

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