Highly Charged

BAE has released the details of its new ‘structural batteries’, batteries which will do more than just provide power to machinery.

These new batteries are much more than that and instead of taking a battery and applying it to a circuit, BAE has created a power source, which can be built into the structure of the hardware it is designed for.

The battery is made from a composite material, which combines carbon fibre with the nickel-based chemistry in your average battery. This means the material has both the chemical ability to store charge, woven into the physical strengths associated with carbon fibre.

Furthermore, BAE are saying this design is more than just a traditional battery in an oddly formed case and there is potential for the new design to act as a substitute for existing composite materials. Stewart Penney of BAE systems said, “There are a number of people that will build a battery shaped like a beam, for example, but fundamentally that’s just an odd-shaped battery, it isn’t a structural battery. The beauty of what we’ve got is that, when it’s fully developed, a company will be able to go out and buy what is a standard carbon-composite material, lay out the shape, put it through the curing process and have a structural battery,” he said.

BAE knows the technology works. Only last year, they announced that construction of a torch and small unmanned aerial vehicle (shown above) using this technology had been successful, but the key advantages a project could gain from technology such as this are mainly to be found in weight-saving. By effectively merging the battery into the physical structure of a product, a designer loses the need for both a battery and material to case it in, instead using the same lighter material for both, losing the excess weight of the power source.

‘Structural composite batteries’, to give them their full title, were first investigated as a possible way of lightening the burden of soldiers carrying electronic items in difficult terrain. In a press release, BAE set out some futuristic (and fairly optimistic applications) such as a tent with its own power supply, but at the moment it is working on an equally ambitious project, testing the technology in the Lola-Drayson B12/69EV, which aims to become the fastest electric car in the world.

“It’s only when you shake rattle and roll these things on a real-world platform that you uncover issues,” Mr Penney told the BBC on Monday. However, he admits there are current issues with the design, chief among which is the power density of these new batteries (the energy they can store for a given mass). Currently, their power density is around a third that of a car battery and around a tenth of the lithium batteries you get in a laptop.

Although there is on-going work into developing similar composite batteries with lithium instead of nickel, further problems exist in the required life-time of the battery. You can’t just take off an aeroplane wing and throw it away when it runs out of power. Added to this the applications in high speed cars and the military would suggest a huge price-tag and difficulty to work with.

However, BAE is still confident that it can overcome these problems. “The goal, and we are still working towards it, is to have a material that isn’t significantly more expensive than carbon fibre”.

We do know the technology works and in the near future we will see the first glimpses of its potential in the real world and hopefully its success in the test-beds of Le Mans, allowing the technology to find its way into our lives.

Contributed by Alex Hawkings

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