UNSW engineers develop 3D-printed energy storage design options

Monday, 19 September, 2022

UNSW engineers develop 3D-printed energy storage design options

UNSW Sydney engineers have developed a process to 3D print solid-state polymer electrolytes into any shape desired for use in energy storage.

The process could be particularly useful in future medical devices where small, intricately designed energy storage offers several benefits, according to the research team from the School of Chemical Engineering — led by Professor Cyrille Boyer and including Dr Nathaniel Corrigan and Kenny Lee.

Solid-state electrolytes are a key component in solid-state batteries, but they have traditionally suffered from poor performance due to low ionic conductivities or poor mechanical properties.

UNSW researchers claim that their 3D printed solid polymer electrolyte (SPE) offers high conductivity, as well as robust strength, which means they can potentially be used as the actual structure of a device.

Designing storage on a micro-scale level

“Nobody has 3D printed solid polymer electrolytes before. Traditionally they have been made using a mould, but previous processes did not offer the ability to control the strength of the material, or to form it into complex shapes,” Lee said.

“With existing solid-state electrolytes, when you increase the mechanical strength of the material, you sacrifice a lot of the conductivity. If you want higher conductivity the material is much less robust. What we have achieved is a simultaneous combination of both, which can be 3D printed into sophisticated geometries.

“This polymer electrolyte has the potential to be a load-bearing energy storage material. Because of its strength, it could be used as the actual structure of small electronics, or in aerospace applications, or in small personal medical devices given our 3D printing process can be very intricate and precise.

“We can create really tiny structures with the kind of systems we’re using. So it has fantastic application in nanotechnology and anywhere you need to design energy storage on a micro-scale level,” Lee said.

Increased cycling stability

Although the solid polymer electrolyte developed by the UNSW team is regarded as a high-performance material, the researchers say it can be manufactured using inexpensive and commercially available 3D printers, rather than sophisticated engineering equipment.

The SPE described in the paper is composed of nano-scale ion-conducting channels embedded in a rigid crosslinked polymer matrix. It is produced via a process known as polymerization-induced microphase separation (PIMS).

To showcase the versatility of the material, the researchers 3D printed an intricate map of Australia which was then tested as an energy storage device.

“One of the other benefits of this SPE in energy storage devices is the fact it increases the cycling stability — that is the number of charging and discharging cycles until its capacity is reduced to a certain amount,” Corrigan said.

“In our paper, we show that this material is very stable and has the ability to charge and discharge over thousands of cycles. After 3000 cycles there was only roughly a 10% drop.”

Researchers used a standard 3D printer to produce an intricate map of Australia made of solid polymer electrolyte which was then tested as an energy storage device. Photo from Dr Nathaniel Corrigan.

High energy storage density

In future, product designers could use their SPE to create items with a much higher energy storage density, according to the researchers.

“Imagine an earpod predominantly made out of this material, which is also acting as the battery. The storage density will be much higher and the power would therefore last longer,” Boyer said.

“We really hope to be able to push forward in terms of commercialisation because we’ve created some really incredible materials and processes.”

Findings of the study have been published in Advanced Materials.

Top image: UNSW researcher Dr Nathaniel Corrigan working with a 3D printer in the laboratory. Photo from Dr Corrigan.

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