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Houston researchers develop new battery prototype to impact wearable technology

University of Houston Professor Haleh Ardebili (right) and Navid Khiabani, a graduate research assistant, are creating bendable batteries. Photo via UH.edu

A new breakthrough prototype out of the University of Houston was inspired by science fiction.

"As a big science fiction fan, I could envision a ‘science-fiction-esque future’ where our clothes are smart, interactive and powered,” according to a statement Haleh Ardebili, who last month published a paper on a new stretchable fabric-based lithium-ion battery in the Extreme Mechanics Letters.

“It seemed a natural next step to create and integrate stretchable batteries with stretchable devices and clothing," she said. "Imagine folding or bending or stretching your laptop or phone in your pocket. Or using interactive sensors embedded in our clothes that monitor our health.”

The battery uses conductive silver fabric as a platform and current collector, which stretches (or mechanically deforms) while allowing movement for electrons and ions. Traditional lithium batteries are quite rigid and use a liquid electrolyte, which are flammable and have potential risks of exploding.

The technology is only a prototype now, but Ardebili, who's the Bill D. Cook Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UH, and the paper's first author Bahar Moradi Ghadi, a former doctoral student, think the battery could have many applications, including in smart space suits, consumer electronics and implantable biosensors.

While it's just a prototype now, the technology has a lot of potential in the wearable tech space. Photo via UH.edu

The team's focus now is to ensure the battery is "as safe as possible" before it becomes available on the market.

“Commercial viability depends on many factors such as scaling up the manufacturability of the product, cost and other factors,” Ardebili said. “We are working toward those considerations and goals as we optimize and enhance our stretchable battery.”

Ardebili first conceptualized the product several years ago and has since earned several key wards and grants to support the design, including a five-year National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2013, a New Investigator Award from the NASA Texas Space Center Grant Consortium in 2014 and an award from the US Army Research Lab in 2017.

A number of Houston-based organizations are working to create innovative batteries.

Earlier this summer, TexPower EV Technologies Inc. opened a 6,000-square-foot laboratory and three-ton-per-year pilot production line in Northwest Houston to help the University of Texas-born company to further commercialize its cobalt-free lithium-ion cathode, which can be used in electric vehicles.

Another Houston-based company Zeta Energy has also developed proprietary sulfur-based cathodes and lithium metal anodes that have shown to have higher capacity and density and better safety profiles than lithium sulfur batteries. The company landed a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's ARPA-E Electric Vehicles for American Low-Carbon Living, or EVs4ALL, program, in January.

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A research team housed out of the newly launched Rice Biotech Launch Pad received funding to scale tech that could slash cancer deaths in half. Photo via Rice University

A research funding agency has deployed capital into a team at Rice University that's working to develop a technology that could cut cancer-related deaths in half.

Rice researchers received $45 million from the National Institutes of Health's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, to scale up development of a sense-and-respond implant technology. Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh leads the team developing the technology as principal investigator.

“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real time,” he says in a news release. “This kind of ‘closed-loop therapy’ has been used for managing diabetes, where you have a glucose monitor that continuously talks to an insulin pump. But for cancer immunotherapy, it’s revolutionary.”

Joining Veiseh on the 19-person research project named THOR, which stands for “targeted hybrid oncotherapeutic regulation,” is Amir Jazaeri, co-PI and professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The device they are developing is called HAMMR, or hybrid advanced molecular manufacturing regulator.

“Cancer cells are continually evolving and adapting to therapy. However, currently available diagnostic tools, including radiologic tests, blood assays and biopsies, provide very infrequent and limited snapshots of this dynamic process," Jazaeri adds. "As a result, today’s therapies treat cancer as if it were a static disease. We believe THOR could transform the status quo by providing real-time data from the tumor environment that can in turn guide more effective and tumor-informed novel therapies.”

With a national team of engineers, physicians, and experts across synthetic biology, materials science, immunology, oncology, and more, the team will receive its funding through the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, a newly launched initiative led by Veiseh that exists to help life-saving medical innovation scale quickly.

"Rice is proud to be the recipient of the second major funding award from the ARPA-H, a new funding agency established last year to support research that catalyzes health breakthroughs," Rice President Reginald DesRoches says. "The research Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh is doing in leading this team is truly groundbreaking and could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. This is the type of research that makes a significant impact on the world.”

The initial focus of the technology will be on ovarian cancer, and this funding agreement includes a first-phase clinical trial of HAMMR for the treatment of recurrent ovarian cancer that's expected to take place in the fourth year of THOR’s multi-year project.

“The technology is broadly applicable for peritoneal cancers that affect the pancreas, liver, lungs and other organs,” Veiseh says. “The first clinical trial will focus on refractory recurrent ovarian cancer, and the benefit of that is that we have an ongoing trial for ovarian cancer with our encapsulated cytokine ‘drug factory’ technology. We'll be able to build on that experience. We have already demonstrated a unique model to go from concept to clinical trial within five years, and HAMMR is the next iteration of that approach.”

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