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Making Batteries Smaller, Lighter and More Longlasting

What started as an idea a decade ago might lead to cell phone batteries with better performance.

Ryne Raffaelle and Brian Landi believe they've found a way to make batteries smaller, lighter and able to hold a charge longer by using nanotechnology to change some of the basic elements inside lithium-ion batteries, the batteries inside our cell phones, tablets and laptops. They are using sheets of carbon nanotubes to replace the layers of metal found inside typical batteries. The nanotubes are incredibly small and look like a black straw laid flat.

"You can think of those carbon nanotubes as like a highway for electrons," Raffaelle said. "They're extraordinarily good at conducting electricity."

Nanotechnology is the science of the extremely small. The field seeks to change or improve the way objects look, work and interact by altering its makeup at the tiniest possible sub-molecular level. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or 50,000 times smaller than the diameter of a strand of hair.

The basic premise behind Landi and Raffaelle's technology is using these carbon nanotubes, which are so small that they take up significantly less physical space when placed inside the battery. Because there's more available space, Raffaelle said there can be more electrical power stuffed into a battery pack without changing the battery size.

"So if you're talking about your cell phone, I think you would want more energy in the same package," Raffaelle said. "You already have one in there, but if I can give you one with twice as much power and make your cell phone last twice as long before you have to charge it, you're probably going to take that."

The basic structure in most batteries are the sheets of copper and aluminum stacked on top of each other with an added layer of material that helps activate the negative and positive sides of the battery. In most cases, that additive is a powder made of graphite.

Working with two RIT doctoral students, Raffaelle and Landi have made a few prototypes of these new batteries inside a special lab on campus. The two recently earned patents for their work.

How it All Began

Today's prototype started in Raffaelle's mind when he was working for NASA in Brevard County, Florida. Part of his job was to build better batteries for space exploration. In 1991 and 1993, scientists began publishing research about carbon nanotubes and the electricity-friendly properties they have. Raffaelle read those studies and wondered if carbon nanotubes can work inside batteries.

Ten years later, Raffaelle says his testing results prove his hunch was right. However, other battery experts have had the same idea.

James Fleetwood, a materials scientist at the Indiana Battery Innovation Center, said small- and mid-sized companies and major universities are researching the same topic but with a different focus. Some organizations are looking to make batteries more flexible while some are looking to make batteries that store energy longer.

The next step for Raffaelle and Landi's research is to make these batteries available to the masses. Business research has shown that American consumers love their devices' capabilities, but now yearn for longer battery life.

Landi said the technology at RIT could be applied to circular watch batteries up to packages for electric cars and space satellites. He said part of the new battery structure is ready to be sold now, but until an entrepreneur comes in, he and doctoral students will continue fine-tuning their prototypes.

Raffaelle said he's unsure how the university will get this research from lab to inside someone's device.

"There are a lot of options, ranging from just licensing the patents to someone else all the way through spinning out our own company," Raffaelle said. "We're currently talking about commercialization options."

Original Source: Democrat & Chronicle, Read the full story here.