The appliance of 3D science
We are at the beginnings of a science that could develop batteries lasting 50 times longer than they do today
Prof Valeria Nicolosi of Trinity College Dublin, who, with her team of 25 top scientists, has been awarded a €2.5m European Research grant. photograph: cyril byrne
Who says alchemy has to be about turning seemingly ordinary materials into gold? If you change them to ink, you have a licence to print money or at least spark a revolution.
It all started with graphene, says Prof Valeria Nicolosi from the laboratories on the second floor of the Science Gallery building at Trinity College Dublin, curving sharply over the railway line below.
The “thinnest material known to man”, she says, is made from carbon and contains billion of layers stacked one upon the other. When scientists found they could isolate a single sheet the size of an atom, it became very different and displayed special, amenable properties.
This is the beginnings of a science that will one day develop batteries that last 50 times as long as what we have today; that can be bent and moulded into the very products they are charging. They will be invisible, indecipherable, powerful.
Later on, Nicolosi and her team of 25 world-class scientists found a way to manipulate certain other materials – namely transition metal chalcogenides – into batteries, infusing billons of minute sheets in an ink solution and printing them with standard ink-jet machines on to any two dimensional surface.
The result is like a kind of barcode on a simple flexible strip of plastic or paper.
Today they are raising the stakes. With the support of a newly acquired €2.5 million grant from the European Research Council (ERC), they are opening a new frontier – 3D printing batteries and exploring ways to amalgamate them into actual objects.
As our understanding of batteries changes, there is so much more on the horizon, particularly a longer-lasting version that can partially recharge itself by converting surrounding heat into electricity, another tenet of Nicolosi’s research.
In more simple terms, she says, the technology could produce custom-made biomedical devices with inbuilt power sources, food packaging with sensors printed on the paper to alert consumers to spoilt goods or even toys.
“It’s been like a journey over the years. First we learned that one-atom thick materials could exist, then we learned how to exfoliate them, then we learned how to exfoliate them by the bucket and from there we learned how to use this solution as ink to print. And effectively you can use any common ink-jet printer,” she says.
“Taking all the learning from ink-jet printing in 2D and translate it into 3D printing and the overall goal would be, in a few years down the line, you would be able to literally print any sort of device or any sort of phone or a laptop or biomedical device all in one go with a battery embedded into it without you knowing it.”
The measure of the technology’s importance, and its potential, is in the €2.5 million grant awarded by the ERC, a highly competitive process that attracts thousands of applicants.
Four ERC grantsNicolosi, a native of Sicily who first arrived to study for her doctorate at Trinity in 2002 and later lectured in Oxford before beginning her nano-research here five years ago, is just one of six scientists to secure four separate ERC grants. Today her total funding amounts to over €11 million and its results are obvious, even to the novice eye.
About €700,000 of this latest round of funding will be invested in a specialised 3D printer which should arrive on campus by the summer.
In order to capture the very fine resolution required to “print a battery”, an aerosol system will construct macro objects from plastic with a micro battery ink constitution.
“To begin with, [this could produce] very small circuits or even light up small LEDs in food packaging for example,” Nicolosi says.
“Small devices that can detect the presence of noxious gas in the environment; you don’t need a huge amount of energy to produce that and they are essential devices. Think about all these things printed in one go.”
Nicolosi’s attachment to Amber (Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research), a Science Foundation Ireland-funded centre, makes sense in this regard; it is tasked with developing new materials and devices for a range of sectors including ICT, medicine and industrial technology.
Amber forms strategic partnerships with industry and it will be of little surprise industry intrigue is building in a technology that could one day produce pacemakers or other highly specialised biomedical devices.
Now it’s about finding the right “recipes” for integration.
“We know we can walk. Soon enough we are going to learn how to run and how to have a race,” she says.
“The way this could go is going to be [one of] two ways I think. Either we are going to get industrial interest, and we are already getting a lot of interest in that sense, or we don’t exclude spinning out our own brand.
“I don’t think we are very far off a market; I’d say it’s reasonable [to say] five, eight years.”
There is also potential interest from consumer electronics. The technology is developing rapidly; in fact the only thing that might cool the excitement in this sector is the slowness of 3D printing as compared to traditional mass production methods.
The important point here is the 3D printing approach is highly specific to individual custom devices.
“For example, we have interest from a toy company. They don’t want to use this technology to produce a million pieces but some collector pieces.”
It could conceivably be of interest to an automotive industry – high-end car manufacturers marketing custom interiors.
“Initially it will be very, very small markets for high end, very, very special use. And then as technology evolves, why not? But that depends on the evolution of the 3D printing itself.”
Consumer technologiesIt could be said this slow build is true of all consumer technologies. Everyone of a certain age will remember the expense of first-generation VCRs, quickly usurped by DVD and then digital downloads.
Also of considerable interest is the potential for batteries to self-charge. While already super-efficient, they do require traditional charging – just less often and for shorter periods of time.
Ms Nicolosi cautions that highly effective, partial self-charging is a long way off, but it is possible.
Some of the materials they can use in the process, from the hundreds available, possess thermo-electrical properties, which means they can store heat often dissipated as a waste.
“These thermo-electric materials can absorb the heat that is wasted and produce electricity out of that. It feeds back. That energy can be transformed effectively from heat into energy to power a device,” she says.
“These materials that have these particular properties would literally produce electricity out of that and that can be stored by a battery.”
This reduction of excess heat also means the batteries are less dangerous (or less likely to explode) and, in turn, reduce engineering problems in the products they are charging.
This development however is some way off and no matter how efficient, the battery will always need a power source.
This brings us back to the controversy surrounding Steorn, the Dublin-based company which has claimed to have somehow defeated the laws of physics to sidestep this irritant reality.
Nicolosi’s team is making great leaps in battery efficiency but she stops there. “It’s never going to be a battery that self-charges in perpetuity.
“Nature is perfect and imperfect at the same time – 100 per cent efficient engines don’t exist.”
Scientific realityHer views fall in line with the scientific community which has debunked Steorn. Or she might say, more simply her views fall in line with scientific reality – limitations.
“The technology we are developing is very, very aware of all the restrictions in things. It is not perpetual motion. We have to face the reality and I am a little bit cautious on the claims of that company,” she says.
“You can work in how to get the current technology better. From there to say: this battery will never die, this battery will charge itself, you don’t need energy from the sun, you don’t need energy from . . . leave it alone, it will go – it would be absolutely amazing! I’m sure a lot of companies would go bankrupt. But that’s a little bit of a fiction.”
In this clinically non-fiction world of high-end science, Nicolosi and her international team (Ireland, Mexico, China, Portugal, Korea, Sweden and India among the nationalities in a coterie of expertise) are now focused on three dimensions.
The results could impact immensely on how we power our world.
“It’s hugely important. It’s a team effort. The hardest part from my side is to get the best possible staff in the project because this is key,” she says.
“The technology itself, I think it’s a revolution.”