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UD professor makes batteries charge faster, safer

University of Delaware
UD Prof. Thomas H. Epps, III

A University of Delaware professor has come up with a way to improve the performance and safety of batteries.

It’s an invention meant to make batteries charge faster and less likely to explode or cause a fire. And it’s the brainchild of Thomas Epps, III. He is the Thomas and Kipp Gutshall Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at UD.

Epps, along with a team of grad students, have patented the concept which replaces the liquid electrolyte that traditionally connects the positive and negative electrodes in a battery with a lightweight, flexible plastic polymer.

Epps says the polymer prevents the positive and negative electrodes in a lithium battery from calcifying and potentially contacting to create a spark—the kind that may be the source of fires that occurred with some cell phone models.

“Basically we get the best of both worlds,” said Epps. “We get something that can conduct, something that is shock absorbing and potentially flexible and yet something that actually keeps the electrodes from physically contacting and potentially shorting.”

The polymer’s ability to prevent calcification alleviates the need for an additional metal in battery electrodes.

Cobalt is ubiquitous in the lithium-ion batteries used cell phones and other devices and is reportedly mined by children in the Congo.

Epps adds the polymer is also an excellent conductor for the exclusively lithium electrodes.

“A polymer that can create small channels that allow us to conduct ions very quickly,” said Epps. “And so what that means is that that would allow us to charge the battery faster; potentially discharge the battery faster i.e. get more power out of the battery.”

The technology’s use is not limited to cell phones and other handheld devices. It could be applied to cars as well.

Epps says he’s talking to the Department of Energy and several tech companies interested in using his patent. 

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