Imagine being able to wrap a special bandage around an injured limb, and have it send real-time updates to your doctor. Or having a smartphone that’s so thin you can roll it up and put it in your pocket, while also charging it on the go via your solar-power-generating clothes.
Flexible electronics is an exciting new field of research that has the power to bring all of these ideas into reality. Scientists around the world are currently working on a wide range of flexible electronics, ranging from contact lenses that can detect a diabetic patient’s glucose levels, to flexible solar cells that can be used anywhere, from internal walls, windows and curtains to personal clothing.
With such endless potential, the market for flexible electronics is expected to grow from $41.2 billion in 2020 to $74 billion in 2030, creating enormous opportunities for manufacturers in Australia and around the world.
While the application of flexible electronics is limited only by our imaginations, these devices must be powered by batteries, which in most cases are heavy, cannot be bent and need to be connected by wires. In addition, most batteries contain toxic chemicals and cannot be easily recycled, which poses an environmental problem.
These challenges are being tackled head-on by researchers at UQ, who are supporting Printed Energy, a Brisbane-based innovative company specialising in printed batteries and photovoltaics, to develop paper-thin, flexible, rechargeable batteries in partnership with colleagues at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). The collaboration has been made possible by an Australian Government Cooperative Research Centres Project (CRC-P) grant, granted in 2017.
Professor Lianzhou Wang, an ARC Laureate Fellow at UQ’s School of Chemical Engineering and Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN), is leading the research team at the UQ Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation.
“Flexible printed batteries are a very attractive option for the development of wearable electronics and other flexible electronics.” Professor Wang says.
“The roll-to-roll technology used in the
CRC Project can significantly reduce the costs of manufacturing, and create pathways to a niche market of integrated, multifunctional electronics.”
Currently, other printed batteries are made using techniques such as layer-by-layer stacking, or screen-printing methods. By contrast, the Flexible Printed Batteries CRC-P team is utilising a ‘roll-to-roll’ printing method, similar to that traditionally used to print newspapers. This printing method makes the batteries much quicker and therefore more affordable to produce.
What’s more, these flexible printed batteries can be made in any shape and used almost anywhere, making their application virtually limitless.
Another advantage of the team’s flexible printed batteries is that they are much more environmentally friendly.
“These batteries are made of zinc and manganese oxide, which are both cheap and easily recycled, making them far more sustainable than current alternatives,” says Dr Miaoqiang Lyu, an Advance Queensland Research Fellow in Professor Wang’s team.
Dr Lyu says flexible printed batteries are also much safer than alternatives, such as lithium-ion batteries, which generally involve flammable electrolyte.
“This makes them more suitable for use in medical devices and wearable healthcare electronics,” he says.
To date, the CRC-P team has successfully produced and trialled these flexible printed batteries in ‘smart’ marathon bibs, which have been used in numerous road races since 2018, including a fun run with mayors from across the Asia–Pacific at the 2019 Asia Pacific Cities Summit and Mayors’ Forum.
Dr Vera Lockett and Sri Harsha Kolli from Printed Energy taking the 'smart' marathon bibs for a test run.
From these promising beginnings, the flexible printed batteries have the potential to be produced and applied on a much larger scale. For example, they could be combined with flexible solar panels to help smooth periods of low sunlight, creating ‘printed-on’ energy storage for homes and businesses.
The team is also exploring other potential uses, such as health applications and food freshness tracking.
Professor Vicki Chen, Executive Dean of UQ’s Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology and a team leader in the Flexible Printed Batteries CRC-P project, says this new technology could open the door to many real-world applications.
“Storage has been one of the key challenges for renewable energy and the electronic era. The world has a high demand for various storage solutions, and it’s very realistic that this technology will lead to practical applications in wearables and small-scale devices in the near future.”
Members of the CRC-P team (from left): Dr Miaoqiang Lyu, Dr Jannie Grové, Mr Tong`en Lin, Professor Lianzhou Wang, Dr Yuxiang Hu, Mr Benoit Clement.
It’s these practical applications that are the focus of Printed Energy, which has been working on developing scale-up processes for the research discoveries and completing pilot tests of smart wearable devices.
By bringing together cutting-edge science to deliver innovations that will have significant economic and sustainability benefits, the development of this new technology is an exemplar of collaboration between researchers and industry.
“By pooling our resources, knowledge and insights in a collaborative framework, industry and academia are achieving great progress in the field of thin flexible batteries,” says Rodger Whitby, CEO of the St Baker Energy Innovation Fund, Managing Director of Printed Energy and Chair of the Flexible Printed Batteries CRC-P Advisory Board.
Dow Chair in Sustainable Engineering Innovation at UQ, Professor Chris Greig, is very optimistic about the future application of printed battery technology in homes, businesses and institutions.
“The project that UQ is undertaking in partnership with Printed Energy has presented an opportunity to advance sustainability through cutting-edge chemical and materials science, opening up new opportunities for innovation across a variety of applications in industry,” Professor Greig says.
“The mission of the UQ Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation is to provide thought leadership, and to facilitate innovation, in the sustainable production and use of energy and materials. The Printed Batteries CRC-P aligns perfectly with this mission, and I am excited to see the applications of this technology in the next generation of manufacturing.”
Professor Lianzhou Wang, School of Chemical Engineering and Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology
Phone: +61 7 3365 4218 Web: https://researchers.uq.edu.au/researcher/1479
Briony Beaumont, Centre Manager, UQ Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation, School of Chemical Engineering
Mobile: +61 439 630 357
Opening image credit: Judit Losh
This article was last updated on 30 April 2020.