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Robot Batteries Inspired by Organic Body Fat Energy Storage

By The Biz Team (Nicholas)

A team of students at the University of Michigan have reached a breakthrough with biomorphic batteries. Their discovery could allow robots to store upwards of 72 times the energy they have, through a system similar to the way in which humans store energy in fat. The researchers created a new rechargeable zinc battery, which integrates into the structure of the robot, freeing up space. Its weight is also reduced, due to the material of the batteries. The goal of the experiment, was to significantly improve the robot's battery capacity, by mimicking the way living beings distribute energy in their bodies. The experiment was quite successful, as the new batteries seem to hold more power compared to the conventional lithium-ion types.

Biomorphic technology is set according to living forms and systems. It may be ideal for humanoid robots to work and operate within the same environments designed for people. Structural batteries may also be utilized for delivery drones, as studies indicate the new zinc batteries double the range of the robots. Nicholas Kotov, one of the professors at the University of Michigan, said there are many examples of this energy storage mode in nature. The energy storage in most living things is not contained in one organ, but distributed throughout the body in fat reserves. It makes sense to mold robots in the same fashion.

According to Kotov, a battery may usually occupy 20 percent or less of the available space within current robots. That may be okay for larger robots, but it is tough when it comes to smaller machines. The idea of the project was to create a battery which would be applied across the body of the robot, providing a longer battery life. This is particularly important, considering the use of robots worldwide is increasing. Robots are being used for a variety of tasks, from carrying out inspections to delivering company products. In these cases, the emerging technology would help extend the robots' lifespans, therefore increasing their productivity.

Mingqiang Wang, a visiting researcher at Kotov’s lab, feels that the longer battery life and economization of energy use are not the only advantages of their discovery. There are estimations that robots may also have 72 times more power capacity, should their exteriors be replaced with the same zinc batteries. The zinc battery works through the storage and transfer of energy between electrolyte membranes, which are composed of carbon-based nano-fibres and water-based polymers. Experts indicate this membrane tends to be more environmentally friendly, as compared to the traditional lithium-ion batteries.

The battery is also less likely to ignite if the unit is damaged, reducing the risks associated with battery disposal. The aramid nano-fibres are made of upcycled, repurposed body armor. The unfortunate problem of the batteries is they can only maintain a high capacity for 100 cycles. That is a limited shelf life, compared to the lithium variety that can serve upwards of 500 cycles. But the fact that they are made of cheap, easily recyclable materials, should make them easier to swap for the new batteries, and at a low cost.

Tests have already begun on robotic toys shaped like scorpions and worms. The batteries are wired into the motors, and wrapped around the externals of the robotic insects. Ahmet Emre, one of the doctoral students participating in the research, claimed the batteries could perform double duty. They could power the robot, while also functioning as a shield for the organs of the robot. It would be replicating the same multi-functionality that fat does for mammals. Visceral fat forms as a shield that protects the body’s organs from significant physical impact.

Following the trials of the prototype battery in two robots, including the scorpions, Kotov indicated the next step would be to scale up production of the innovative power cells. Considering the battery designs are fairly uncomplicated, he feels that this can be done with ease. The new technology for energy storage and capabilities answers the sustainability problem, as humanity continues to deal with the pandemic situation. As online services become more prioritized because of the need for social distance, robotic services are becoming more prominent, as companies depend on them for menial to increasingly analytical tasks. The few which are mobile in the workforce, manage their tasks through delivering components by scooting along on wheels. Other research companies are also crafting robots that can walk. The developing technologies mean robots will require more power to remain active, and perform more tasks. The new zinc batteries will help deliver that, while also helping the environment.


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