April 17, 2014 in City

WSU team trying to build better smartphone battery

Ryan Minnerly Murrow News Service

Professor Grant Norton, right, talks with a student in his lab at Washington State University on Monday.
(Full-size photo)

In a laboratory at Washington State University, Grant Norton and a team of researchers are working on a surprisingly difficult task: building a better battery for smartphones.

Super lithium-ion batteries could end up being for Washington State what Gatorade is to the University of Florida, according to Norton, a professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at WSU and the head of the research team.

“They made out like bandits with the Gatorade patents,” Norton said. “Hopefully, this can be our Gatorade for WSU.”

There’s a big market for the little batteries, with the smartphone industry requiring 500 million of them by 2015, Norton said.

Norton’s team focuses on anodes, which account for about 14 percent of a typical battery. Norton’s anode technology could triple the capacity of current-generation batteries, as well as allowing them to recharge faster and more times in their lifespan.

 If their product is used in only, say, 10 percent of new batteries, that could be a huge boon, Norton said.

“So if you think, each of those batteries is maybe $30 or $40, and you’ve got 14 percent of that, times 50 million, these numbers start to add up to be something significant,” he said. 

Nearby, another group of researchers at WSU, led by professor Katie Zhong, is developing a “gummy” electrolyte for next-generation batteries. Along with being safer than current-generation batteries that use liquid electrolytes, the new gummy electrolyte creates the potential for a bendable battery which, according to Norton, could be fit into suits for astronauts and the military someday.

Zhong said the goal is to combine Norton’s anode technology with her electrolyte technology to form a superior battery.

“We have different projects, but we want to assemble batteries using a combination of our materials,” said Zhong, the Westinghouse distinguished professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

Travis Woodland, director of business development for WSU’s College of Engineering and Architecture, said the technology cannot be commercialized on its own.

“Because of the nature of the industry, these things are rarely developed completely in a vacuum,” Woodland said. “Dr. Norton has a really great anode in his tin anode technology, but having a good anode is only a small piece of an entire battery.”

The researchers are working on forming an alliance with other research institutions and companies. The alliance is intended to help increase the capacity for research and advance the technology from the development stages to the manufacturing stage. Norton said that could happen in the next couple of years, though he declined to provide a specific timeline.

“Hopefully, within a few years we could be a direct replacement for the battery in your iPhone right now,” he said.

The Murrow News Service provides local, regional and statewide storiesproduced by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

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