3D Printing of Batteries
With how far 3D printing has come to date, the applications of the technology seem to be endless. As well as the conventional headliners such as aerospace, medical, and automotive, companies and researchers alike are now using 3D printing to produce functional energy storage devices such as batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries in particular have become essential to modern human life, as they power everything from mobile phones to aerospace navigation systems. As a result, there is an abundance of research in the field of electrochemistry aimed specifically at improving the performance of these batteries. This includes improving their capacities (energy densities), making them smaller, making them more affordable, and increasing the rate of charging.
The development of higher-quality batteries also has major implications for climate change as they can help promote the use of renewable energy sources, ultimately reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, applications such as electric vehicles and city-scale renewable energy storage are still limited by the energy densities and charging rates available to us today. This is where 3D printing can lend a helping hand.
Taking Li-ion batteries to the next level
The most recent example of the application comes from the California Institute of Technology, where scientists developed a novel method of 3D printing lithium-ion battery electrodes. Leveraging DLP 3D printing technology, a visible light-based form of resin-based SLA, the team was able to fabricate carbon and lithium cobalt oxide structures to be used as anodes and cathodes respectively.
For reference, DLP 3D printing inherently allows for high-resolution 3D printing, meaning the team was able to manufacture high-precision complex electrode geometries with sub-structures at the micro- and nano-scale. This had the effect of increasing the mass loading of the custom electrodes, meaning the devices delivered higher capacities with faster charging rates when compared to conventionally manufactured counterparts.
Commercializing 3D printed energy storage
It’s not just the academic space investigating the application either, as Swiss battery technology firm Blackstone Resources recently began 3D printing its own Li-ion solid-state batteries. The company eventually plans to penetrate the electric vehicle market and has already used its proprietary inkjet-based 3D printing process to prototype and test an initial set of battery cells.
Beyond just printing electrodes, Blackstone is actually producing entire solid-state batteries which substitute out the liquid electrolyte altogether. The technology was developed to rival the conventional battery production lines of today and is intended as a much more flexible and cost-effective alternative. While traditional production lines are very specialized and can only manufacture one type of cell at a time, the Blackstone process can achieve a wider range of cell formats while eliminating the use of harmful solvents altogether.
Of course, the technology also comes with its performance benefits. The company’s prototypes have been used to deliver energy density increases of around 20% when compared to similar conventionally manufactured batteries.
3D printer manufacturer Photocentric has also been dabbling in the market space recently, as the company recently launched a new division focused specifically on developing eco-friendly 3D printed electric batteries. Again targeting the automotive sector, Photocentric hopes to use its VLP 3D printing technology to facilitate the production of low-cost car batteries.
The project stems from the fact that today’s battery cells are too large, too heavy, and quite simply not optimized for automotive use. As such, vehicle designs can sometimes be influenced by energy storage device availability rather than suitability, which should come first and foremost.
Using its technology, Photocentric has the aim of striking a deal with Musk’s Tesla at the upcoming UK-based Giga factory. The company has already expanded its team of scientists to develop these battery cells and hopes to drive the future of environmentally-conscious production with optimized batteries for the automotive sector.
Where are 3D printed batteries headed?
Much like many of the novel applications we see floating around, the 3D printing of batteries is very much in its infancy. This isn’t to say the application doesn’t have potential, however, as companies like Blackstone and Photocentric are leading the charge with experimental research and development.
3D printing such devices can have major benefits for supply chains as well as product performance, and the sooner companies in the 3D printing space realize this, the sooner it will take off.