Power Quality

Wearable electronics powered by flexible batteries

Stanford University researchers have developed an experimental device designed to provide a comfortable power source for technologies that bends and flexes with the human body.
By Tom Abate January 31, 2020
Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Electronics are showing up everywhere: on our laps, in pockets and purses and, increasingly, snuggled up against our skin or sewed into our clothing. However, the adoption of wearable electronics has been limited by their need to derive power from bulky, rigid batteries that reduce comfort and may present safety hazards due to chemical leakage or combustion.

Stanford researchers have developed a soft and stretchable battery that relies on a special type of plastic to store power more safely than the flammable formulations used in conventional batteries today.

“Until now, we haven’t had a power source that could stretch and bend the way our bodies do, so that we can design electronics that people can comfortably wear,” said chemical engineer Zhenan Bao, who teamed up with materials scientist Yi Cui to develop the device.

The use of plastics, or polymers, in batteries is not new. For some time, lithium ion batteries have used polymers as electrolytes — the energy source that transports negative ions to the battery’s positive pole. Until now, however, those polymer electrolytes have been flowable gels that could, in some cases, leak or burst into flame.

To avoid these risks, the researchers developed a polymer that is solid and stretchable rather than gooey and potentially leaky, and yet still carries an electric charge between the battery’s poles. In lab tests the experimental battery maintained a constant power output even when squeezed, folded and stretched to nearly twice its original length.

The prototype is thumbnail-sized and stores roughly half as much energy, ounce for ounce, as a comparably sized conventional battery. Graduate student David Mackanic said the team is working to increase the stretchable battery’s energy density, build larger versions of the device and run future experiments to demonstrate its performance outside the lab. One potential application for such a device would be to power stretchable sensors designed to stick to the skin to monitor heart rate and other vital signs.

– Edited by Chris Vavra, associate editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.


Tom Abate
Author Bio: Stanford University