Mar 20, 2017 | By Benedict

Scientists at IBM Research Zurich and ETH Zurich in Switzerland have used 3D printing to build a tiny redox flow battery that can power computer chips while cooling them at the same time. The 3D printed liquid battery is just 1.5 millimeters thick.

3D chip stacks with integrated cooling batteries could power future computers

Although high-end smartphones appear to be getting bigger rather than smaller, the technological world is constantly striving to make components, especially internal ones, as compact as possible. This allows for more features to be packed into certain pieces of hardware, and can eventually make individual parts cheaper to produce.

Evidence of part downsizing can be found in an exciting research project carried out by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) and IBM Research Zurich, a research arm of American technology company IBM. Researchers from the two institutes have used 3D printing to develop a tiny redox flow battery battery, one of the smallest of its kind, that could supply energy to the computers of the future.

A redox flow battery is a kind of battery that uses two chemical components dissolved in liquid to generate power. Ion exchange occurs through a membrane separating the two chemical liquids, making the battery similar to both a fuel cell and an electrochemical accumulator cell. Many flow batteries are built on a large scale, and are used in stationary energy storage applications in places like power plants. These new batteries, however, are just 1.5 millimeters thick.

Magnified 3.4 mm section of 3D printed polymer channels

3D printing was used to build the tiny batteries, and was perhaps the only technology suitable for creating a system that could supply electrolytes as efficiently as possible while keeping the pumping power as low as possible. The researchers 3D printed a polymer channel system consisting of wedge-shaped channels that could effectively press the electrolyte liquid into the porous electrode layer.

The Zurich researchers say that these tiny 3D printed batteries could be used in future computer chip stacks, in order to both power and cool them. That’s because the two liquids used in the battery have a proven cooling effect, as well as being functional electrolytes. According to the scientists, the chips and batteries could be stacked alternately, layer by layer, to form a complete structure that powers itself and prevents itself from overheating.

“We are the first scientists to build such a small flow battery so as to combine energy supply and cooling,” commented Julian Marschewski, a doctoral student at ETH Zurich who is working in a research group led by Dimos Poulikakos, Professor of Thermodynamics at the university.

Diagram of 3D printed channel network

Although the flow battery is incredibly small, it can generate a surprisingly large output. In fact, the researchers say the battery could break records, as it generates 1.4 watts per square centimeter of battery surface.

But despite the impressive power and dual functionality of the 3D printed battery, the researchers say that the device is not yet ready to power a computer chip. Further optimization is needed from “industry partners” before the devices will be put to use. When this happens, the battery could even be used in other systems besides computers, such as lasers and solar cells.

A research paper documenting the scientists’ findings has been published in Energy & Environmental Science, and argues that the “rational tailoring of fluidic networks in RFCs is key for the development of devices effectively combining power delivery and thermal management.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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