Technology at UI could revolutionize batteries

Technology at UI could revolutionize batteries

CHAMPAIGN — If a new technology developed by Paul Braun and his team gets adopted by industry, it may take only minutes to charge your laptop, instead of an hour or so.

Braun, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois, has come up with a faster way to charge batteries.

It involves StructurePore technology that gives batteries greater electrical capacity than is currently available, plus ultrafast charging capabilities.

Braun's technology was recently licensed by the UI to Westminster, Colo.-based Xerion Materials Corp.

That company has primarily been in the polymers business. But its new subsidiary, Xerion Advanced Battery Corp., has arranged to lease space in the EnterpriseWorks building in the UI Research Park.

The local office is expected to employ six to 10 people full time.

StructurePore technology could make faster charging available not only for laptop computers, but also for cellphones and electric vehicle batteries.

Braun also sees uses in portable medical devices that need to be charged quickly — and in high-power medical devices, such as defibrillators, that require large jolts of power.

Xerion Materials Chairman and CEO Robert Zavala foresees use of the batteries by the U.S. military, noting that batteries — and their weight — are a concern for troops overseas.

Braun said most batteries for laptops take one to two hours to charge.

But he estimates StructurePore can provide 20 to 50 times improvement in rate performance, so something that typically needed an hour to charge can charge in just a minute or two.

"Some of the most advanced designs were charging up in 10 to 20 seconds," he said.

How StructurePore came about

StructurePore technology is rooted in nanotechnology, which involves the manipulation of materials at a tiny scale.

Braun was specifically interested in "three-dimensional structured metals" and began exploring their optical properties six years ago.

Three years ago, he began to focus on their energy properties and how the metals could be used in energy research.

Braun's idea was to use nanotechnology to redesign a battery electrode so both electrons and ions could move faster.

"With a lithium-ion battery, if you want to have a high-power battery, you have to move the lithium ions and the electrons quickly," he explained.

So he set about to create a nanostructure that would do just that.

It would have "structure pores" to allow fast lithium-ion transport, plus a "metal backbone" for fast electron transport.

"We basically built superhighways for electrons and superhighways for lithium ions," he said.

Building that nanostructure requires a multistep recipe.

— Braun starts out with a metal-foil substrate, then puts small spheres of glass or plastic on its surface.

— He then fills the spaces between those spheres with nickel.

— The spheres are then removed, either with chemicals or with heat. What's left is nickel foam, resembling a sponge.

— The metal foil is then coated with active battery material, such as lithium manganese oxide. There are still pores running through the structure, providing transport for lithium ions, while the metal foam provides electron transport.

Braun said the "real paradigm change" of StructurePore technology is the power it makes possible.

The technology has advantages in energy density, allowing the battery to weigh less.

But Braun said the big pluses are its high-power output and capabilities for ultrafast charging and discharging.

"What we have is 10 to 100 times higher power than other batteries on the market," he said.

Technology gets noticed

Braun's technology received worldwide attention when he and Huigang Zhang, a postdoctoral research scientist at the UI, collaborated on a paper published in Nature Nanotechnology in March.

The technology was later featured in the newsweekly magazine The Economist.

Since March, Braun said he and his colleagues have improved the manufacturing process and worked with new materials that provide even higher energy and power.

"We're finalizing the manufacturing process in the research park," he said.

Braun said Xerion Advanced Battery will build and supply batteries to manufacturers for testing and evaluation.

Once those have been validated, Xerion will optimize the batteries to the size and shape needed for the given application — say, cellphone or laptop computer.

The technology will also work in car batteries, Braun said, but "integrating it with a full automotive system" will be "an engineering challenge."

Over the last couple years, "dozens and dozens" of prospective investors from North America and Europe have contacted the UI's Office of Technology Management seeking access to Braun's technology, said Steve Wille, a senior technology manager in that office.

Even a royal family from the Middle East contacted Braun with interest in a possible investment, Wille said.

But the university ended up licensing the technology to Xerion in July, because it had "the right amount of money committed and the right plan," he said.

Wille said he couldn't disclose the exact terms of the licensing agreement, given confidentiality provisions.

But he said it included an up-front fee, "a commitment to a certain amount of money being invested," royalties, annual minimum payments and milestones to meet.

The number of prospective investors coming "out of the woodwork" suggests Braun's technology could be massive, Wille said.

It's difficult to predict the potential of any technology, Wille said, but Braun has done a lot to demonstrate this one will work.

"It's a technology that's very needed today, it's in a hot field, and it takes care of an immediate need," Wille said.

Braun, 40, of Savoy will serve as Xerion Advanced Battery's chief science adviser. He said he sees the technology as "a real opportunity to commercialize something that comes out of the lab and have it make a difference."

"Doing it in Champaign-Urbana-Savoy is personally exciting and professionally exciting," he said. "It enables me to have close ties to the company, and the company to maintain close ties with the university, for everyone's mutual benefit."

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serf wrote on August 22, 2011 at 9:08 pm

This is VERY cool. A real game-changer. Imagine being able to recharge your electric car in 10 minutes (as opposed to 8 hours).