Holographically patterned microbattery. Credit: University of Illinois

New Prize Aims To Accelerate Microbattery Advances & Adoption

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The first smartwatches mostly just tallied up steps or nagged users to stand up. But today, wearable medical devices can track stress levels and sleep cycles or monitor for irregular heartbeats, ovulation cycles, and low blood oxygen levels; they can even sense a COVID-19 infection before symptoms start.

As these and other wireless electronic devices become more popular, they are getting smaller, too. And smaller devices need tinier batteries that can keep up with their powerful capabilities.

That is why the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office just launched the Microbattery Design Prize, the newest prize challenge in the American-Made Challenges program to be administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The prize, which opened for applications on March 8, 2023, offers a total prize pool of $1.1 million in federal funding and performance and safety testing services with DOE national laboratories. During two prize phases, selected teams will compete to design microbatteries that can outperform today’s models in performance, safety, and recyclability.

The Microbattery Design Prize will award up to $1.1 million in federal funding and performance and safety testing services at DOE national laboratories to innovative small-capacity battery design projects that could yield improved performance, safety, and recyclability. Graphic by Besiki Kazaishvili, NREL

“Microelectronics have transformed society over the past 50 years, in large part because they continue to shrink,” said Tina Kaarsberg, a technology manager at DOE who is leading microelectronics research. “The same computing power that once filled a large room now fits under my finger.”

Watches are not the only devices that have gotten smart.

Sensors and other electronic devices are building smart homes, factories, farms, and cities. Soon, a whole suite of rice-grain-sized devices could monitor indoor air quality, factory safety hazards, bridge conditions, plant health, and heart conditions. Sensors powered with microbatteries could also smarten up manufacturing processes—helping to accelerate the development of clean energy technologies—and monitor a clean energy grid. As the country adds more renewable energy sources to the U.S. power system, these sensors could help ensure the grid continues to provide a steady stream of reliable energy.

To keep all these tiny devices running, their batteries must be even smaller. New battery designs could not only help run this smart world; they could also be tailored to serve specific applications and offer improved efficiency, performance, and safety. But, so far, building smaller batteries that deliver the same (or more) power has proven to be a big challenge.

Manufacturers, for example, cannot make microbatteries with the existing, large-scale processes they use to make larger batteries. Because microbatteries use different chemistries from their bigger counterparts and manufacturers cannot produce as many at a time, the microbattery manufacturing process can often be more expensive. And that extra cost makes it harder to test out new microbattery designs and get them ready for commercial use.

That is where DOE’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office comes in.

“Supporting the prototyping and testing of more microbattery designs can provide the key link between potential system developers, users, and battery manufacturers to spur their adoption and increase manufacturing capacity for batteries of this size,” said Paul Syers, a technology manager at DOE.

Individuals and teams are eligible to compete in the Microbattery Design Prize, which is divided into two prize phases, called Idea and Test:

  • During the Idea Phase, competitors will develop technical designs for microbatteries that serve a specific application (like an implanted medical device) and meet certain performance goals (like a specific power output). Up to six winning teams will be given the opportunity to complete battery performance and/or safety testing work at a DOE national laboratory.
  • Only Idea Phase winners may participate in the Test Phase. During this second phase, competitors will manufacture their prototypes and evaluate their performance and safety as well as their potential cost. By the end of this contest, participants will develop a realistic plan to commercialize and manufacture their technology.

One grand prize winner will receive $300,000 in cash, and up to two additional teams will each receive $175,000 in cash.

Improved microbatteries could come with increased power capacities, safety measures, and versatility. Some of these microbattery advances could be applied to larger batteries, too, boosting broader efforts to improve energy storage. But they could also help the microbattery manufacturing industry develop new, optimized processes, increase domestic production, and build reliable supply chains.

Eventually, these incremental shifts could help the United States compete with international manufacturers and accelerate the country’s transition to a clean energy future through smarter manufacturing and grids.

“The Microbattery Design Prize seeks to advance microbattery design and manufacturing,” said Alec Schulberg, the NREL prize administrator, “so we can power our smart future.”

Courtesy of NREL. By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy

Learn more about how to participate in the Microbattery Design Prize:

DOE Launches Prize to Strengthen Microelectronic Supply Chains Through Microbattery Design and Commercialization

Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced the launch of the Microbattery Design Prize. This two-stage competition will award up to $1.1 million in federal funding and performance and safety testing services with DOE national laboratories to innovative small-capacity battery design projects that will yield improved performance, safety, and recyclability.

The purpose of this design prize is to advance innovative new designs for microbatteries and accelerate their commercialization and integration into existing technologies needed for clean energy manufacturing, like sensor systems for improved smart manufacturing processes, and sensors for grid monitoring of renewable energy sources as the nation continues its transition to clean energy future.

Because of the requirements associated with their small size, the microbattery market is unable to leverage many of the existing manufacturing processes of the larger battery supply chain ecosystem. This presents a major barrier to the development and commercialization of new microbattery chemistries and designs, along with an opportunity to increase domestic production and secure supply chains. Not only are microbatteries crucial for clean energy manufacturing scale-up and smart technology innovation, but some manufacturing innovations resulting from this design prize could be applied to larger batteries as well. Microbatteries are also critical components of non-energy-related technologies that society relies on, such as wearable and implantable medical devices, meaning the resultant designs of this prize could affect innovation across multiple industries.

Today’s announcement marks the opening of the first of two phases in the Microbattery Design Prize.

  • Phase 1: Idea
    The first phase will select the best ideas for a new microbattery design. During Phase 1, competitors will develop and submit technical designs and schematics for microbatteries that serve a specific application (like a grid monitoring devices) and meet certain performance goals (like a specific storage capacity, cycle lifetime, safety, or recyclability) that go beyond what is commercially available today.
  • Phase 2: Test
    During this second phase, competitors will create prototypes they can submit to DOE national labs for performance and safety testing. Competitors will also work to determine potential cost to manufacture their designs at scale. By the end of this contest, participants will develop a realistic plan to commercialize and manufacture their technology. Note: Only selectees from phase I will be eligible for participation in phase II.

Applications for Phase 1 are due on July 1, 2023, at 5:00 p.m. ET. DOE anticipates making up to six awards in Phase 1, each consisting of a $75,000 cash prize and performance and safety testing services with DOE National Laboratories. Find out more information about this prize opportunity, including deadlines and how to apply. An informational webinar will be held for this prize on April 12, 2023, at 12:00 p.m. ET.

The Microbattery Design Prize is led by DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office (AMMTO) and managed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Visit the Microbattery Design Prize page on the American-Made Challenges website for more information.

Featured image courtesy of the University of Illinois.

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