Make no mistake-the stakes are high. Successful commercialization of a plastic battery could mean big bucks for its academic inventors and their university. The U.S. market alone for batteries is $5.8 billion a year and is poised for rapid growth as a new generation of electric vehicles and smaller electronic devices drives a need for more efficient, lighter rechargeable batteries. Corporate and academic labs around the world are racing to find the solution, with many efforts focusing on lithium-based batteries (see sidebar).
A plastic battery could carve out a lucrative niche. Most batteries today are made of toxic and environmentally damaging heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. Plastic batteries, however, contain no metals and are easily recycled. They must be sealed so that moisture doesn’t dampen their charge, but the polymers inside are a far cry from lithium, which can explode when exposed to water.
What’s more, the all-plastic battery is made of thin, foil-like sheets-a critical advantage for someone designing a product who needs to figure out where to squeeze in a battery. Imagine casings for laptop computers lined with thin sheets of the battery or car structural parts that are lined with the power sources, even satellites where the plastic battery is crammed into any available space. “You can make it into just about whatever configuration you want,” says Searson.