Biomorphic batteries for the robot revolution

BY RICHARD HEAP:

The robots aren’t coming. They’re already here.

Artificial intelligence has already started to reshape many of our jobs. True, those of us who work in offices don’t yet experience the same punishing algorithms that rule over the workers in Amazon warehouses.

But the pursuit of automated efficiency will get us all eventually. Then it’s just a short hop to full enslavement by metal masters.

With that dystopian vision in mind, should we really be finding ways to make the robots more powerful?

The answer from a team of scientists working on a battery project at the University of Michigan is a strong ‘Yes.’ This week, a team led by chemical engineering professor Nicholas Kotov has released research that shows how a rechargeable zinc battery can be integrated into the structure of a robot to provide it with much more energy.

Seventy-two times more energy to be precise. That’s 72 times more energy to tell you to work harder, to force you into shackles, and to eventually take over the world. But let’s get back to the serious stuff…

There’s no shortage of stories this week that show how large batteries are becoming. LS Power has commissioned a 250MW battery in California that it said is the world’s largest; Neoen is planning a 900MW / 1.8GWh battery in a $2.1bn mixed renewables complex in Australia; and Capital Dynamics has teamed up with Tenaska on a 2GW battery storage drive in California.

These all show how the industry is sizing up and attracting investors.

But Kotov and his team have been trying to solve the opposite challenge. Batteries need to become smaller and more flexible so they can support a wider range of uses for robots, and remove the restriction on developers that batteries usually need to occupy 20% of the robot’s internal space or account for 20% of its weight. This will be crucial to everything from delivery drones and robot nurses to microscopic robots.

That’s where ‘biomorphic batteries’ come in.

The technology integrates the battery into the shell of the robot’s body, rather than having to store the electricity in a separate cell. This means the battery acts in a similar way as the biological fat reserves that store energy in animals. They can be a source of energy and also protect the machine’s inner workings.

It works by passing hydroxide ions between a zinc electrode and the air side through an electrolyte membrane. This membrane is composed of the carbon-based fibres that you can find in Kevlar vests and a water-based polymer gel that helps to shuttle the hydroxide ions between the electrodes.

The researchers said the technology could double the range of delivery robots, for example. And they said it could affect the rest of the energy system too, by supporting a shift from reliance on centralised batteries to distributed storage.

They are now seeking commercial partners to help bring the technology to market. Such investment will be vital if the battery system is to achieve the potential the team behind it believe it has – and it does look like it’d have a wide range of potentially beneficial uses. It’s easy to get swept up by fantasies of a malign robot uprising.

The more immediate danger in the growth of AI isn’t sentient robots at all. It’s when algorithms are used haphazardly and have significant impacts in the real world, from the furore this week over UK exam results to frequent reports of gruelling conditions in Amazon warehouses. Advances in battery technology can help technology work better, but not what the users tell it to do!

But when, in 20 years’ time, we’re being outrun by a sentient robot soldier hellbent on our destruction then we might feel a little differently.

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