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ECE student team wins 2017 Tech Hub grant for next-gen fabric battery proposal

L-R, Wesley Thio and Raman VilkhuWith such drastic engineering advancements over the past 10 years, tech devices are becoming smaller and smaller.

Two electrical engineering (EE) scholars from The Ohio State University, however, want people to imagine the next step: fabric batteries powered by water. The concept could revolutionize the wearable tech industry.

Ohio State EE students, Wesley Thio and Raman Vilkhu were among the 2017 Tech Hub Student Project Grant Winners for proposing such a solution.

"Our electronic wearable devices currently have a problem," Thio said, "where the issue is not so much with the sensors or the features, but with the batteries. Our normal Li-ion batteries powering the current wearable technology are just too bulky and rigid for those applications."

The student team is looking to change this conundrum with their flexible batteries, powered by electrochemical fabrics and sweat. By printing battery cells on fabric, they are exploring a viable alternative for traditional battery-powered devices.

“Essentially our project is an attempt at tackling a discrepancy in our modern-day, technology-driven society: there has been a large focus in attempting to make sensors and electronic devices more portable (e.g. wearable devices),” Vilkhu said. “Ironically, there has not been a similar focus in the battery technology to power these devices.”

For example, he said, the primary goal of the new smart-watch devices is to present a convenient and unobtrusive way to offer notifications to the wearer – whether email, social media message or phone calls.

“However, most people don't realize the largest component taking up the most mass and volume in the watch is actually its battery,” Vilkhu said. “Nowadays, the integrated circuits are so small their size is negligible compared to the battery. So, imagine the possibilities if someone made a more portable, non-rigid battery? There would be so much more room in the watch to place cool sensors.”

The big picture, he said, is to devise a way to seamlessly integrate batteries with the human experience.

“We accomplished this by depositing or ‘printing’ battery cells onto any fabric while maintaining the flexibility,” Vilkhu said. “Overall, batteries are essential to every single sensor/device in existence (very little can be done without power), so we are hoping to enable a more flexible, unobtrusive way to provide power for these devices.”

The two gave a demo of their design in McPherson Chemical Laboratory, explaining how droplets of water (or sweat) are enough to activate the fabric battery if worn against the skin.

With funding, Thio and Vilkhu are working to streamline a manufacturing process to operate at scale, and then purchase sensors to connect their powered fabrics with actionable results.

Tech Hub at Ohio State sponsors the annual grant contest, in which students pitch ideas, winners are selected, and grant funding is provided.

On Nov. 15, eight Tech Hub student project grant semifinalists pitched their projects to a packed crowd with representatives from across the university. Tech Hub plans to share the progress of the winners throughout this semester and next. In September 2018, the groups return to present their progress and share their successes.

Vilkhu is currently advised by Asimina Kiourti at the ElectroScience Lab, while Thio is advised by Anne Co in Chemistry and Biochemistry, as well as Chandan Sen from the Department of Surgery.