British defence giant, BAE Systems, claims to have developed “the most radical method of storing electricity since the invention of the battery!” The structural battery, BAE declares, represents a technological breakthrough that could lead to a redesign of all electrical technology, bringing with it major environmental benefits.
Structural batteries are sheets of carbon-composite material that can be molded into complex 3-D shapes to form the actual structure of a device. Thus, the rear wing of a racing car becomes an in-built battery, a torch is its own power source, and the fabric of a tent can capture solar energy.
“Anything you can do with carbon fiber, you can do with structural batteries”, says Stewart Penney, commercialization manager of BAE’s Advanced Technology Centre. Structural batteries can be made microscopically thin and could even, potentially, be incorporated into fabric. They work just like normal batteries, and can be recharged either at the mains or using solar energy and other renewable power-sources.
Reducing battlefield bulk
To date, BAE have tested out the technology on a high-tech micro unmanned air vehicle and a rudimentary torch that weighs 80% less by virtue of effectively being its own battery. In the future, savings in weight and bulk onto the battlefield will undoubtedly prove popular with British soldiers, who currently carry up to 76kg of kit, mainly electrical equipment for communicating and signaling. A light-weight, power-storing military rucksack and a solar-powered tent are among the applications in the pipeline for the future.
Structural batteries could also become integral to all devices carried by soldiers, thus doing away with bulkier traditional batteries and the need to carry spares. Any such reduction in weight could be highly beneficial from a military point of view – carrying heavy kit can significantly reduce soldiers’ speed and mobility.
The world’s fastest electric car
BEA have also teamed up with race car manufacturer Lola, turning the rear wing of the Lola-Drayson B12/69EV into a giant structural battery. This all-electric Le Mans Prototype car - with zero emissions and 850 break horse power - is designed to be the fastest electric racing car in the world, reaching up to 200 miles per hour. Its huge rear wing-battery is powerful enough to run some of the racer’s on-board electronic components, including its headlights.
No more “running out of juice”
Does this herald the birth of an electric car capable of travelling 1,000 miles without recharging? Unfortunately, as yet the answer is ‘no’.
Structural batteries use the same chemistry as traditional battery packs in electric cars, and so have the same issues of limited storage and the need for frequent recharging.
However, there is hope that future developments in lithium polymers will mean that structural battery cars could one day have a range of hundreds of miles.
According to Steve Penny of BAE Systems, you could potentially turn the hood, roof or trunk lid of future road cars into structural batteries, thereby allowing the makers of electric cars to dispense with bulky traditional batteries. A roof battery could even combine with solar panels to draw power from the sun. With battery weight drastically reduced, vehicles could become more fuel efficient, economical and environmentally friendly.
BAE System’s process for the production of structural batteries makes used of nickel- based battery chemistries, which are commonly used in defence technology. The power density of the batteries is quite low at present - about a third that of a car battery, and a 10th that in the lithium-based batteries used in laptop and phones.
However, future developments should enable the integration of lithium-ion and lithium polymer chemistries like those in consumer products such as mobile phones, MP3 players, laptops, tablets and portable games. This will reduce the lifetime cost of items to the consumer, who will no longer need to purchase batteries to keep them running.
Laptops of the future
In the long-run, the hunt for ever better technology drives industrial advancements in an evolutionary manner and drives prices of existing tech downwards as it is superceded, resulting in monetary savings for the consumer and better access to life-changing technology for all. But perhaps more immediately, we could see the development of laptops that can run for days without having to be recharged. Imagine structural batteries forming the case of lightweight netbooks and mobile phones. No need to remind ourselves to put our portable devices on the charger every night – once a week should do the trick!