New thermal battery manufacturing method to be industrialized

Jun 02, 2011
Sandia researcher Frank Delnick works with a thin-film coating he developed to make thermal battery components. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

( -- A new thin-film coating process for manufacturing thermal batteries used in nuclear weapons and other munitions that was invented at Sandia National Laboratories will be industrialized under a new corporate partnership with a Maryland company. The process could lead to create lighter batteries in a variety of shapes for future applications.

A thermal battery is a nonrechargeable, single-use energy source that can remain inert for years at before becoming activated at temperatures as high as 1,100 degrees (600 degrees Celsius). The thin-film coating process changes the way some thermal batteries have been made since the 1950s.

Sandia researchers also are looking into whether a patented binder used in the new thin-film coating process has commercial applications, for example in lithium-ion batteries in electric and and in batteries used in the when drilling deep underground in hot geothermal environments.

Sandia and ATB Inc., a Cockeysville, Md.-based manufacturer of thermal batteries, recently signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) to test Sandia’s new thin-film coating process for large-scale industrial production.

“We can take the developments that we’ve had in the lab, scale up the quantities of materials that we use and instead of producing tens of batteries we can produce hundreds of batteries in ATB’s facility,” said Tom Wunsch, manager of Sandia’s Advanced Power Sources Research & Development Group. “It’s beneficial to us to have an industrial partner to work with on these issues and for them to have this new technology.”

Guy Chagnon, CEO of ATB, said his company and Sandia have been working independently on changing the process for producing thermal batteries.

“The goal of the CRADA is to industrialize a new process, to manufacture, to build and to test the battery,” Chagnon said. “Sandia and ATB have the same vision with the thin-film coating. We’re putting our resources together to reduce the size and the cost of thermal batteries.”

Sandia’s expertise in thermal batteries stems from their use in and other munitions. They are designed to be extremely reliable, remaining inert for 30 years at room temperature and then springing into action on a moment’s notice. Sandia has developed about 30 thermal battery designs since 1975.

Sandia researcher Frank Delnick led the effort to make the thermal battery components as thin-film coatings instead of pellets. The process will work best for thermal batteries that are active for a fraction of a second to a few minutes, he said.

Traditional thermal batteries are made by pressing powdered materials into electrochemically active pellets used as the anode, cathode and separator of the battery. The pellets must be a certain thickness to maintain mechanical integrity and prevent them from falling apart when handled. The amount of material required to achieve mechanical stability can be up to 10 times greater than what is needed to make the battery work. Therefore, considerable reduction in size can be achieved by making the components thinner, Delnick said.

The goal of the agreement is to jointly develop thin-film coatings that will slash the time and materials need to make thermal batteries.

On average, thermal batteries made with thin-film coatings would use one-fifth to one-half the materials needed in their conventionally manufactured counterparts, Delnick said.

The new process also could allow manufacturers to produce different shapes of thermal batteries, Delnick said. Current thermal batteries are cylindrical and range in size from a man’s thumb to a one-pound coffee can.

The first thermal battery made using the new process was slightly thicker than a postage stamp and about the size of a quarter, he said.

ATB employees have visited Sandia to learn more about the process and the company is busy readying its facility to begin developing the new manufacturing process. Chagnon said if the research and development are successful, large-scale manufacturing could begin by late 2012.

Sandia’s process uses relatively inexpensive equipment common in the paint industry that coats the battery components as thin films onto stainless steel foil. The coatings are held together and bonded to the foil using a patented binder.

The binder must withstand temperatures of about 660-1,100 degrees (350-600 degrees Celsius), which are required to melt the salt electrolyte and activate the battery. Once activated, the binder must remain chemically and mechanically stable throughout the discharge of the battery without emitting gas or producing other side reactions that could adversely affect the performance of the battery, he said.

The coated materials in the batteries are much tougher than those in current models. Delnick expects that thin-film thermal batteries will perform much better in high-shock environments and will be much more amenable to automated manufacturing.

“Since the parts are more robust, you don’t have to handle them as gingerly,” Delnick said.

The process could be used for select thermal batteries that are being replaced in the B61 thermonuclear weapons as part of a Life Extension Program now under way at Sandia, Wunsch said. That project, the largest weapons refurbishment effort in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, currently involves hundreds of Sandia employees and is scheduled to begin production in 2017.

Explore further: Lifting the brakes on fuel efficiency

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Exxon upgrades lithium car batteries

Nov 29, 2007

U.S. researchers say they've developed a plastic film that will make it easier for automakers to use lithium-ion batteries in electric cars and trucks.

Recommended for you

Lifting the brakes on fuel efficiency

Apr 18, 2014

The work of a research leader at Michigan Technological University is attracting attention from Michigan's Governor as well as automotive companies around the world. Xiaodi "Scott" Huang of Michigan Tech's ...

Large streams of data warn cars, banks and oil drillers

Apr 16, 2014

Better warning systems that alert motorists to a collision, make banks aware of the risk of losses on bad customers, and tell oil companies about potential problems with new drilling. This is the aim of AMIDST, the EU project ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...

A homemade solar lamp for developing countries

( —The solar lamp developed by the start-up LEDsafari is a more effective, safer, and less expensive form of illumination than the traditional oil lamp currently used by more than one billion people ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...