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Inventor's Semiconductor Background Was Source of New, Safer Lithium Battery



(p. B1) SAN FRANCISCO -- Mike Zimmerman likes to shock his guests by using a hammer to drive a nail through a solid polymer lithium metal battery.

Nothing happens -- and that's a good thing.

Mr. Zimmerman's battery is a new spin on lithium-ion batteries, which are widely used in products from smartphones to cars. Today's lithium-ion batteries, as anyone who has followed Samsung's recent problems with flammable smartphones may know, can be ticking time bombs. The liquids in them can burst into flames if there is a short circuit of some sort. And driving a nail into one of them is definitely not recommended.

With that in mind, Mr. Zimmerman's demonstration commands attention.

His Woburn, Mass., start-up, Ionic Materials, is at the cutting edge of an effort to design safer batteries. The company is working on "solid" lithium polymer batteries that greatly reduce their combustible nature.

A solid lithium polymer metal battery -- when it arrives commercially -- will also allow electronics designers to be more creative, because they will be able to use a plasticlike material (the polymer) that allows smaller and more flexible packaging and requires fewer complex safety mechanisms.

"My dream is to create the holy grail of solid batteries," Mr. Zimmerman said.

After four years of development, he believes he is nearly there and hopes to begin manufacturing within the next two years. Ionic Materials is one of a new wave of academic and commercial research ef-(p. B4)forts in the United States, Europe and Asia to find safer battery technologies as consumers demand more performance from phones and cars.


. . .


Mr. Zimmerman's background is in the world of semiconductors; he worked at Bell Labs and then a company called Quantum Leap Packaging. Several university researchers who have worked with the company believe that has lead him to a technology that will be more manufacturable than competing polymer and ceramic battery technologies now being explored.

"What is so intriguing about Mike and his folks is they are using known production techniques borrowed from the semiconductor packaging industry," said Jay Whitacre, a Carnegie Mellon University physicist who was involved with Ionic Materials when it first started and who now is chief scientist at Aquion Energy, a maker of home storage and industrial batteries based in Mt. Pleasant, Pa.

The new progress has led a number of technologists in the field to believe that batteries may finally be getting out of their rut.

"We're in a golden age of new chemistry development which probably hasn't been seen in thirty or 40 years, since the last energy crisis," said Paul Albertus, a program manager at the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. "It's a pretty exciting time to be developing energy storage technology.



For the full story, see:

JOHN MARKOFF. "Creating a Safer Phone Battery (This One Won't Catch Fire)." The New York Times (Mon., DEC. 12, 2016): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 11, 2016, and has the title "Designing a Safer Battery for Smartphones (That Won't Catch Fire).")






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