Robots are the future — But only with a better power source
From cleaning our homes to analysing the soil composition of distant planets, robotics has allowed our society to reach farther than ever before. We are still at a point where we are technologically hampered, however, as robotics can only be pushed so far with our current innovations. One of the biggest hurdles for robots and their potential is power - specifically battery power. Without sufficient energy reserves, robots cannot function. It is a significant limitation but not an impossible barrier to cross, as scientists across the globe push to advance battery technology.
In this article, we are going to discuss how emerging battery technology can help advance the field of robotics and push our society farther than ever before.
The evolution of the battery
To the outside observing, battery technology seems to develop in ebbs and flows. It has taken us a long time to push beyond the traditional heavy acid batteries that we know - such as car batteries or the humble AA battery. In 2019, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the developers of the lithium-ion battery. Although the research was originally published in the 1970s, it wasn’t until recently that this revolutionary battery technology was brought to the mainstream market.
Today, lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous - they are used to power our smartphones, laptops and even our electric cars use lithium-ion batteries. They hold a greater charge, last longer and are incredibly lightweight compared to the batteries that were once popular. Even though lithium-ion batteries are incredibly widespread today, scientists are still struggling to unlock their true potential and much remains unknown about them due to their complicated design.
Issues with lithium-ion batteries
Although lithium-ion batteries have revolutionised how we can use batteries in conjunction with technology, the design does have limitations. The lifespan of a lithium-ion battery is not long and suffers from significant deterioration after a few years of use. This makes it largely unusable for long-term projects that require long-life batteries. Robots such as the Mars Rover, for example, would be redundant after a relatively short perioed if it relied on lithium-ion batteries.
There are other concerns with the future of lithium-ion batteries, such as the various ethical and environmental issues surrounding the precious metals used in their production. Cobalt supplies are dwindling worldwide and the mining process - which is mainly sourced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - has been questioned as ethically and environmentally questionable.
This leaves the future of batteries for technology like robotics a little less clear. Our prevailing battery technology is quickly becoming too much trouble to develop any further, so many are looking for alternatives.
Alternative battery innovations
Looking forward, battery technology has a few different avenues to investigate. Zinc batteries, also known as biomorphic batteries, could address many of the issues surrounding lithium-ion batteries as they are recyclable and low-cost. It does need to be replaced regularly, but due to its environmentally friendly design, this doesn’t pose a serious concern.
Zinc batteries work by channelling hydroxide ions through a zinc electrode, with air passing through an electrolyte membrane. The membrane contains aramid nanofibers and a water-based polymer gel that shuttles ions between electrodes.
Zinc batteries and robotics
Robotics is a growing industry that holds a tremendous amount of potential for advancement. One of the biggest limitations for robotics - particularly autonomous and mobile robots - is battery life.
If we can unlock the benefits of zinc-based batteries, robots could do so much more for us. At the moment, many robots are constrained to a few hours of battery life before needing to recharge. More efficient, longer-lasting batteries would allow robots to run for longer. Whether that is on a factory floor manufacturing components or on a distant planet collecting important data - better batteries are what it will take to unlock robotics to the next level.
It is clear that we are moving closer to autonomous robots in our everyday lives. From self-driving cars to autonomous robots helping with chores or making fast food for us, our society is leaning into robotics as a way to make our lives easier. The first step to making that a reality is to harness the power of innovative battery technology. New developments like zinc batteries can create a more environmentally friendly form of power that will sustain our world for longer. In the process, it can push our technology further and let us develop a better relationship with our energy.