Video Shows Why Future Footballs Will Have Bendable Batteries Inside

The race to develop the battery of the future is heating up. 

by James Dennin

The race to build a better battery is taking many shapes, ad n, ad now, we can add rubber-band batteries to the mix.

A new patent from a researcher at the University of Delaware argues that a rubber band-like shape — along with a new, yet-to-be-developed polymer — could lead to the development of more powerful batteries that are also significantly safer. Flexible batteries would be much less susceptible to damage or explosions — sure to be [welcome news to Samsung Note 7]( customers — by making them more resistant to impact to impact.

With these new bendy batteries, we’d also be able to charge a laptop within minutes, thanks to special tapers inserted into the membrane which would allow the lithium ions to pass through the battery more quickly.

We’d also be able to put batteries in new kinds of products like “smart footballs,” where the prospect of being crushed beneath a pile of linebackers has made the prospect of electrification too dangerous.

“What if there was a sensor inside the football that was designed to alert officials when a player crosses a specific yardage, say for a first down,” explains Thomas H. Epps, a professor at the University of Delaware who recently developed the patent, in a statement “You would not need to rely on an official’s on-field view of the play or instant replay.”

One day, there’d also be faster charging, he says: “This approach in polymers would allow us to get more power out of the batteries. It would enable the batteries to charge faster, in a manner that is also safer,” Epps says. “We are not there yet, but that is the goal.”

The viral exploding Note 7 was likely caused by a battery safety issue, highlighting the potential for so-called "flexible batteries" that are more impact resistant. 

What It Will Take to Make Batteries That Bend

The main headwind that’s standing in Epps’ way? It requires inventing a new material, specifically a new kind of polymer, that would be both conductive and bendy. Epps, a materials specialist, worked on a similar problem at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company when the company was trying to develop tires with more elasticity and better grip.

Epps’ work eventually led to the realization that polymers can be manipulated on a nano-scale, which make it possible to fine-tune them and tweak their properties. These enables the development of so-called “designer” polymers which weren’t possible before, and can be more tailor-made to more specific uses. Within the next few years, Epps says he thinks the new polymer he is working on will enable a new generation of flexible electronics.

“If all of the components are flexible, including the battery and power units, not just the case, screen or buttons,” he explains, “You can make the internal components more impact resistant and shock absorbing, which will improve the phone’s lifespan.”

Breakthroughs in how to approach making batteries are common, because promising concepts often tend to falter as an idea works its way from patent to the marketplace, as this excellent Technology Review article from 2016 explains.

New approaches to batteries are coming fast and these days as the technology becomes cheaper and more efficient, and concerns about fossil fuel emissions warming the planet to convince consumers there are smarter ways to use energy. In addition to solid state batteries — which replace the liquid electrolytes found in lithium batteries with something more efficient, flame resistant, and, well, solid; and “flow batteries”, sort of like electrified liquids that could be indefinitely re-charged, there are now these, bendy batteries.

In fact, the problem might be that there are too many promising areas of research, enough so that any one concept has a trouble emerging as a “clear winner” and worthy of lavish funding. The big players, Samsung, LG, and Panasonic, which supplies Tesla’s batteries, are also more focused on pursuing incremental improvements as opposed to the promise of re-thinking what batteries could look like entirely.