HAMNET Report 12th December 2021


Out of the University of British Columbia comes research that has created what could be the first battery that is both flexible and washable. It works even when twisted or stretched to twice its normal length, or after being tossed in the laundry.

“Wearable electronics are a big market and stretchable batteries are essential to their development,” says Dr Ngoc Tan Nguyen, a postdoctoral fellow at UBC’s faculty of applied science. “However, up until now, stretchable batteries have not been washable. This is an essential addition if they are to withstand the demands of everyday use.”

The battery developed by Dr. Nguyen and his colleagues offers a number of engineering advances. In normal batteries, the internal layers are hard materials encased in a rigid exterior. The UBC team made the key compounds—in this case, zinc and manganese dioxide—stretchable by grinding them into small pieces and then embedding them in a rubbery plastic, or polymer. The battery comprises several ultra-thin layers of these polymers wrapped inside a casing of the same polymer. This construction creates an airtight, waterproof seal that ensures the integrity of the battery through repeated use.

It was team member Bahar Iranpour, a Ph.D. student, who suggested throwing the battery in the wash to test its seal. So far, the battery has withstood 39 wash cycles and the team expects to further improve its durability as they continue to develop the technology.

“We put our prototypes through an actual laundry cycle in both home and commercial-grade washing machines. They came out intact and functional and that’s how we know this battery is truly resilient,” says Iranpour.

The choice of zinc and manganese dioxide chemistry also confers another important advantage. “We went with zinc-manganese because for devices worn next to the skin, it’s a safer chemistry than lithium-ion batteries, which can produce toxic compounds when they break,” says Nguyen.

Ongoing work is underway to increase the battery’s power output and cycle life, but already the innovation has attracted commercial interest. The researchers believe that when the new battery is ready for consumers, it could cost the same as an ordinary rechargeable battery.

“The materials used are incredibly low-cost, so if this is made in large numbers, it will be cheap,” says electrical and computer engineering professor Dr. John Madden, director of UBC’s Advanced Materials and Process Engineering Lab who supervised the work. In addition to watches and patches for measuring vital signs, the battery might also be integrated with clothing that can actively change colour or temperature.

“Wearable devices need power. By creating a cell that is soft, stretchable and washable, we are making wearable power comfortable and convenient.”

The battery is described in a new paper published recently in Advanced Energy Materials. Thank you to TechXplore for this report.

Kate Nakamura, writing in Global Citizen, says that many liken climate change to the scenario of a slowly sinking ship. The creators of the latest in provocative climate change monuments view our planet’s demise as more of a plane crash.

Earth’s Black Box, created by data researchers, artists, and architects, will sit in Tasmania and record every single climate failing humans commit. Through news articles, tweets, and scientific journals, the black box, powered by solar energy, will listen and archive leaders’ climate actions and hope to inspire more to be done.

“The box will act as an indestructible and independent ledger of the ‘health’ of our planet,” Jonathan Kneebone, artist and co-founder of the artistic collective Glue Society, told CNN. “And we hope it will hold leaders to account and inspire action and reaction in the broader population.”

The structure will be composed of three-inch thick steel and, like its namesake, is meant to withstand the destruction of its aircraft (in this case, Earth). The black box will record land and ocean temperatures, military spending, atmospheric greenhouse gas, as well as biodiversity loss, all serving as an objective account of the climate disaster for future generations and the leaders of today.

The outdoor installation won’t be completed until next year and the creators are still in the process of figuring out certain aspects, such as how visitors will access the information sealed within the box, but it comes at a pivotal point in our planet’s history, where we have entered make-or-break scenarios.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) ended in November and science points to it as a failure. With current commitments, the earth will heat past the internationally agreed upon temperature threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius. We are currently at 1.1 degree Celsius of warming and current estimates predict that we are on track to reach 1.8C to 2.4C warming. At 1.1C we’re already seeing the deadly consequences of climate change, from extreme weather events to migration to famine.

Unlike the climate clock, an installation in New York City that calculates the time we have left and what we must do to keep the planet within 1.5C warming, the black box does not measure the amount of time until we crash. Although it’s intended to collect data through the next 50 years, its creators are looking into ways to keep it running for hundreds or thousands of years.

“The idea is if the Earth does crash as a result of climate change, this indestructible recording device will be there for whoever’s left to learn from that,” Jim Curtis of Clemenger BBDO, where the project was conceived, told ABC News.

The New York Times reported that the location of Tasmania was picked due to its “geopolitical and environmental safety” and the structure will be built to withstand natural threats such as weather occurrences and earthquakes.

Since COP26 in Glasgow, the black box has been collecting data and will continue to collect climate-related content from the past and future. While some scientists argue that there is very little evidence that global warming will result in human extinction, the black box’s website states that the project is meant for future generations to understand the steps it took to lead the earth into its demise and hold leaders accountable for their responsibilities.

“How the story ends is completely up to us,” reads the website. “Only one thing is certain; your actions, inactions, and interactions are now being recorded.”

We must hope that it is never necessary for our descendants to look back through the records, and pinpoint the exact moment we dropped the ball and let climate change pass a point of no return.

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.