Pioneers of Discovery
· · · · · · · · · · · ·
Getting a Charge
Out of Plastics
By Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson
Batteries are bulky, heavy, expensive, and a bane to the environment once discarded. They simply lack the capacity and versatility new technology demands. So, for decades, the search for a better battery has been the Holy Grail of the electronics industry.
Hopkins engineering professors Ted Poehler and Peter Searson are among the top crusaders. They have developed a rechargeable battery that could be used in cellular phones, laptop computers, electric vehicles--even satellites. What sets it apart from existing Nicads and Duracells? Plastics.
Their battery is made of carbon-based polymers, a class of plastics that is organic and not toxic to the environment. About as thin as a business card, light, and malleable, the battery could fit in existing crevices in laptops and other devices. After years of research, the plastic battery's single-cell voltage is a competitive 3 volts, and its capacity is approaching that of the industry king, lithium, though it still falls short.
The question is, Can they convince the commercial world to buy it?
Research-wise, the Hopkins team (which has included grad student Jeff Killian and postdoctoral fellows Yosef Gofer and Haripada Sarker) has made astonishing discoveries. The researchers were the first to re-engineer molecules in polymers to create stable, usable materials that could produce enough power and act as the battery's primary components: anodes, cathodes, and (via a polymer gel) electrolytes. They've garnered three patents and a fourth is pending.
After a flush of publicity in 1996 surrounding their prototype, including appearances on CNN, researchers have been searching for investors or sponsors to fund the next phase--a bigger, higher-capacity version of the battery suitable for commercial testing. They face a Catch-22 that besets the transfer of technology from university labs to the real world: Potential manufacturers and donors want to see the next phase before they'll put up big bucks to get there.
So far, Poehler, Searson, and the others remain in a nail-biting limbo: "The goal is to have a practical device that's not just written about in a scientific journal," says Poehler, professor of electrical and computer engineering and Hopkins vice provost for research. "A practical device is more demanding than a discovery that works like a battery."
RETURN TO APRIL 2000 TABLE OF CONTENTS.