Imagine a stretchy, flexible battery, one that could be wrapped around a wrist or sewn into clothing.
Halel Ardebili, an assistant mechanical engineering professor at the University of Houston, is exploring the fundamental science behind such a battery. She just received a 2013 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award to pursue her research.
NSF CAREER awards are given to exemplary junior faculty members to help them launch long, productive research careers. They are one of the most prestigious honors available to faculty in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
UH's Cullen College of Engineering posted a perfect record in the 2012 CAREER awards competition, with all six of its applicants winning grants. Overall, eight UH faculty members won CAREER awards this year.
And 2013 is off to a good start with Ardebili winning a five-year, $400,000 CAREER award.
Ardebili, who joined UH in 2010, said there are numerous applications for a flexible, stretchable lithium ion battery. When sewn into fabric, these batteries could be used to power equipment worn by soldiers in the field or to supply energy to patches placed on the skin for medical purposes, such as patient monitoring or diagnostics. A battery worn around the wrist could be a convenient backup power source, serving as a charger for a smart phone.
However, there are several hurdles to making these batteries effective, she said. One of the biggest challenges is finding out how bending and stretching affect a battery's ability to store and discharge energy. That's a question Ardebili intends to answer through her research.
"If it stretches, we have to make sure it does not lose its electrochemical performance," she said. "That's the motivation to study the fundamental side of it. We want to understand the relationship between the mechanical strain and stress applied to the battery and how it performs."
The relationship between performance and mechanical strain, Ardebili added, will be greatly influenced by the different components used in the batteries. She will work to develop battery components that offer the best combination of stability and performance.
Ardebili and her research team will spend much of the next five years in the lab constructing, testing and analyzing different types of flexible, stretchable lithium ion batteries. They hope to develop components for the commercial production of these batteries, along with a set of rules for making such devices.
"Technology has been moving in this direction for some time," she said. "Whether they're used in flexible electronics, for medical applications or for something else, these can provide an additional feature that electronics developers can work with. For any product, that's important. If you have a new feature, you can develop all new applications for it."