Recent UC Berkeley graduate student Christine Ho invented a zinc-polymer battery that is flexible, printable, and rechargeable. Even more impressive has been her ability to bridge a gap research scientists commonly refer to as the “Valley of Death,” the often impossible distance that exists between the development of innovative materials and their incorporation into actual products to better society.
When Ho began her project, she had to address and overcome two issues. On the one hand, conventional batteries consisting of zinc – a cheap, stable source of power that is plentiful and exhibits no risk of explosion- have the unfortunate tendency of degrading and forming dendrites, branch-like structures (you know, that gray, crusty sand-like material that can be found forming around one of your AA batteries) that eventually short the battery. On the other hand, lithium-based batteries, while the preferred choice for most electronic devices, are highly reactive, expensive, and not ideal for the type of flexible battery Ho envisioned.
After consulting with other researchers and digging deeper, Ho discovered a way to modify a zinc-based battery by replacing one of its liquid elements with a polymer film to create a thin, flexible zinc-polymer battery that doesn’t degrade and can be recharged.
At this point, Ho could have enjoyed the accolades and the completion of her graduate degree. Instead, she teamed up with a former friend from high school, Brooks Kincaid, who was by then an MBA student. Together, they secured funding to create their own company, Imprint Energy. Flush with money and “with the help of another advisor, professor and manufacturing specialist Paul Wright, she and Kincaid devised a way to manufacture batteries the size of postage stamps, using the same technology to pattern silkscreen T-shirts.” More recently, Imprint Energy received $6 million in funding from Phoenix Venture Partners and AME Cloud Ventures.
Although a fairy tale on its own, the larger implication of Christine Ho’s research, and her ability to secure the partners and funding to manufacture her novel batteries, is the acceleration of the wearable device industry, leading to products with a wide range of military, commercial, and even medical device applications.