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Jun 20th, 2013
3-D printing could lead to tiny devices
3-D printing now can be used to print lithium-ion microbatteries the size of a grain of sand.
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Fig 1: Interlaced stack of electrodes that were printed layer by layer.
Fig 1: Interlaced stack of electrodes that were printed layer by layer.

The printed microbatteries could supply electricity to tiny devices in fields from medicine to communications, including many that have lingered on lab benches for lack of a battery small enough to fit the device, yet providing enough stored energy to power it.

To make the microbatteries, a team based at Harvard University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign printed precisely interlaced stacks of tiny battery electrodes, each less than the diameter of a human hair.

In recent years engineers have invented many miniaturized devices, including medical implants, flying insect-like robots, and tiny cameras and microphones that fit on a pair of glasses. But often the batteries that power them are as large as or larger than the devices themselves – which defeats the purpose of building small.

To get around this problem, manufacturers have traditionally deposited thin films of solid materials to build the electrodes. However, because of their ultra-thin design, these solid-state micro-batteries do not pack sufficient energy to power tomorrow’s miniaturized devices.

Fig 1: For the first time, a research team from Harvard University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign demonstrated the ability to 3D-print a battery. This image shows the interlaced stack of electrodes that were printed layer by layer to create the working anode and cathode of a microbattery.

The scientists realized they could pack more energy if they could create stacks of tightly interlaced, ultrathin electrodes that were built out of plane. For this they turned to 3-D printing. 3-D printers follow instructions from three-dimensional computer drawings, depositing successive layers of material – inks – to build a physical object from the ground up, much like stacking a deck of cards one at a time. The technique is used in a range of fields, from producing crowns in dental labs to rapid prototyping of aerospace, automotive and consumer goods. Lewis’ group has greatly expanded the capabilities of 3-D printing. They have designed a broad range of functional inks – inks with useful chemical and electrical properties. And they have used those inks with their custom-built 3-D printers to create precise structures with the electronic, optical, mechanical or biologically relevant properties they want.

To print 3-D electrodes, Lewis’ group first created and tested several specialized inks. Unlike the ink in an office inkjet printer, which comes out as droplets of liquid that wet the page, the inks developed for extrusion-based 3-D printing must fulfill two difficult requirements. They must exit fine nozzles like toothpaste from a tube, and they must immediately harden into their final form.

In this case, the inks also had to function as electrochemically active materials to create working anodes and cathodes, and they had to harden into layers that are as narrow as those produced by thin-film manufacturing methods. To accomplish these goals, the researchers created an ink for the anode with nanoparticles of one lithium metal oxide compound, and an ink for the cathode from nanoparticles of another. The printer deposited the inks onto the teeth of two gold combs, creating a tightly interlaced stack of anodes and cathodes. Then the researchers packaged the electrodes into a tiny container and filled it with an electrolyte solution to complete the battery.


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