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Giving robots a layer of fat could help supercharge their battery life

Structural, rechargeable zinc battery

Robots could be on course to get fatter — and it’s for their own good. In an effort to solve one of the biggest problems in current robotics, a lack of battery life, researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a new rechargeable zinc battery that could be worn around robots like a layer of fat. This could provide them with up to 72 times more power capacity than they get from today’s commonly used lithium-ion batteries.

“We need to find a way of integrating batteries into other parts of robots,” Nicholas Kotov, professor of engineering at the University of Michigan, told Digital Trends. “We have many examples of this in nature. The energy storage in most organisms is done not in one organ like a battery, but is [instead] distributed in the form of fat reserves.”

Batteries, Kotov said, might typically occupy around 20% of the available space in today’s robots. This might be OK for a larger robot (although its energy needs are also greater than small robots), but it proves very challenging when dealing with microrobots. The idea of this project was to create a battery that could be applied across the entirety of a robot body, therefore providing much longer-lasting battery life. This is especially important as the number of robots being used in the world increases — from robots used to carry out inspection tasks to delivery robots like those created by Starship Robotics. In both cases, batteries like the one being developed by the University of Michigan researchers could greatly extend the amount of time they are able to operate for.

The new zinc battery is also reportedly more environmentally friendly than present lithium-ion batteries, and will not catch fire if the battery is damaged. The aramid nanofibers it is partially made from could, its creators claim, be up-cycled from retired body armor. The downside of the batteries is that they are able to maintain high capacity for only around 100 cycles, compared to the 500-plus found in lithium-ion batteries. However, the fact that they are made of cheap and recyclable materials could make them easy to swap out for new batteries at a low cost.

Having tried out the prototype batteries in two robots, including a robot scorpion, Kotov said that the next step of the next will involve scaling up the production of the innovative power cells. He noted that this should be possible without too much trouble because the battery designs are “not complex.”

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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