There are strong signs that printed electronics (PE) systems are reaching commercialization, as new products and applications head to the market. Many of these systems are hybrids though, as typically the fully printed system remains more elusive.
The advantages of printed, thin film and flexible batteries are fairly clear. Being able to use a thin, flexible battery would allow designers and brand owners to utilize these power sources on curved surfaces. Producing flexible batteries on roll-to-roll sheets would be cost-effective, and many of these batteries are made of environmentally friendly materials.
The market for thin film batteries appears to be growing rapidly. According to "Thin Film and Printed Battery Market, Global Forecast & Analysis (2012 - 2017),” a report by MarketsandMarkets, a global research firm, the thin film and printed battery market was worth $181.5 million in 2012. MarketsandMarkets believes the market will have a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 46.14% from 2012 to 2017, reaching a net value of $1.21 billion by 2017.
Major companies have taken notice. In 2011, R.R. Donnelley & Sons, the world’s largest printer with more than $10 billion in annual sales, took an equity position in Solicore, Lakeland, FL, a leader in embedded power solutions. Solicore’s patented products are found in smart cards, RFID devices, medical products and electronic sensors.
David Eagleson, vice president of worldwide sales for Solicore, Inc., said that interest in thin, flexible batteries is growing very quickly.
“This is a result of the deployment of millions of powered credit card devices providing security data as well as other key account related data for the card holder,” Eagleson said. “These volumes reflect merely the first stages of deployment of an marketplace that has issued billions of credit and debit cards. This market alone has established a high degree of interest and demand.
“Also in parallel to powered cards has been the development on low power sensors and communication protocols such as Blue Tooth and RFID,” Eagleson added. “These advancements are now enabling the use of thin flexible medical patches to deliver medicine at specific times and durations,. It also can be used for consumable applications such as a temperature tag to track a shipment over a 48-hour period and upon arrival the data can be downloaded.”
“The ability to print the battery, when combined with printed electronics, will further enable scale and also a means to reduce cost on these solutions to the point, with volume, to have smart packaging that can light up or interact with the shopper in ways not seen before,” Eagleson noted. “This also is very complementary to our core focus, which is as the embedded power in a smart card that can provide account balance, security via One Time Passcode (OTP) and/or loyalty points all on your credit/debit card.”
“The interest in printed batteries is strong,” said Matthew Ream, vice president marketing for Blue Spark Technologies, Westlake, OH, which spun out of Eveready Battery Company (now Energizer). “We continue to see strong interested in all of our target markets, including RFID, RF-enabled sensors, interactive printed media and medical devices.”
Anja Talo, sales director, Enfucell Ltd., Vantaa, Finland, said that interest in printed or flexible batteries is increasing.
“We get now more inquiries than a year ago, and they are more detailed than earlier,” Talo added. “There is continued interest in clothing integrated technology and in product display type of applications,” said Shreefal Mehta, CEO of the Paper Battery Company, Troy, NY.
Key Products for Thin Film Batteries
Because of its size and form factor, thin film, printed and/or flexible batteries are ideal for many applications. For example, Talo pointed to transdermal delivery patches in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, wireless micro-sensor products in healthcare, medical and logistics, interactive cards with LEDs and other functional components as markets for these batteries.
“In general, people are integrating our batteries when they require a power source that is thin, flexible, environmentally friendly and/or disposable,” Ream noted. “In PE, our batteries easily integrate with printed flexible circuits, displays and logic.”
“First is powered cards, followed by smart packaging, smart labels with embedded sensors and smart patches, which are but a few examples of areas in which the ability to print both the battery and the circuit in scale will allow for scaled rollout of powered cards, the deployments of thin light up magazine covers, interactive cereal boxes or other consumer packaging products,” Eagleson said. “The key is any where thin and flexible are key requirements, it is in these areas that our solution will have an up matched fit. The current coin cell is very low cost because of scale, but it is not flexible it is in these areas where the printed/flexible battery has a unique value proposition and fit.”
Advantages and Limitations
There are major advantages as well as limitations of printed and flexible batteries, and advances are being made in the technology.
“The major advantages are scalability and the overall form factor, and its ability to bend and flex within the application,” Eagleson said. “The batteries are thin, flexible and safe, while also being extremely scalable to hundreds of millions of units via the printing process. The ability to print the battery also allows for a more rapid deployment of custom sizes and shapes to meet specific market requirements, with both scale and a means to drive down the cost per unit.
“The limitations currently are in the fact that the batteries are primary cell and not rechargeable,” Eagleson added. “In some applications, the ability to recharge a battery is a necessary additional value. This is an area of focus that Solicore plans in the future to develop to round out our overall product offerings of thin flexible batteries.”
“The major advantage is that they are thin and flexible,” Ream said. “There just is no other power source that can integrate the way a printed or flexible battery can. So in applications where thinness or flexibility are paramount, they are the clear choice. Applications do need to be chosen wisely, however, as printed and thin film batteries typically have a pretty tight energy density when you make them thin and flexible. This is why we partner with ultra-low power semiconductor companies to develop very integrated solutions for our customers.”
“The advantages are the thin and flexible form factor, and the size and shape can be tailored according to the application,” Talo said. “The battery can be designed and produced as an integral part of a device, and low cost in high volumes and eco-friendliness. In terms of limitations, these are best suitable for low power applications (1 mW range), and our chemistry is not rechargeable. However, integrated production is becoming a reality.”
“Integration into production processes at scale and cost are key challenges,” Mehta said. “Energy or power density are difficult to meet for all applications.”
Opportunities for Batteries
Thin film printed and flexible batteries are already playing a key role in a number of markets. Eagleson noted that Solicore is currently commercializing the printed battery with R.R. Donnelley, with targeted rollout in early 2014.
“Ongoing, our current batteries, produced by Solicore via our coated battery, are the industry standard in powering credit card applications, with deployments in the millions,” Eagleson said. “Our key fit is a result of years of development to produce an extremely thin, flexible and robust battery that can withstand the high temperature and pressures needed to create a credit card. Our batteries are powering millions of units in use today, and we have been certified by MasterCard, Visa and American Express as an accepted embedded power solution.
“We also are the power source in several medical devices from neuro-stimulators to medical patches capturing patient data or delivering medicines,” Eagleson noted. “A final example is via our group called Powered Media Technology (PMT), where the battery has been incorporated into creating lighted ads products from brochures to mailers to magazine covers. Truly the only limit to the uses of our batteries is the imagination of the design engineers. We have powered smart garments to temperature sensors to powered cards. If the requirement for the application is to have thin, flexible and safe power, we are the only proven provider with scale today.
“The key positioning for Solicore is to ensure we produce the best possible battery that is both reliable and replicable,” Eagleson concluded. “To date, we have more thin film batteries in use that anyone in the world. Our focus is solely on the thin film battery, as we do not manufacture a variety of other more traditional batteries as some of our competitors have done. This allows us to put our time and effort and R&D dollars into creating a robust, proven battery for market deployment. The best thing we can do for our customers is to give the what they need, when they need it, and to do so with a consistent, dependable product. To that end our customers know they can count on Solicore to meet all of their needs.”
Mehta is seeing batteries in use on smart cards. “We are focusing on a super capacitor product for portable electronics that integrates with electronics in a totally novel way and helps the lithium batteries get 30% longer life/run time,” Mehta added. “We have keen interest from leading portable electronics companies.”
Ream said that printed or flexible batteries are playing a key role in a number of applications, including battery assisted passive RFID smart labels, time temperature data loggers with RFID interface, interactive printed media such as beverage bottles, cosmetic iontophoresis patches and medical device telemetry.
“In addition to its best-in-class printed battery technology, Blue Spark has pulled together a unique ecosystem of both printed electronics and traditional electronics partners to help deliver integrated solutions to our customers,” Ream said.
Talo said that products already in the market include transdermal delivery patches in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, wireless micro-sensor products in healthcare and medical industry.
“Enfucell is not aiming to be the only battery manufacturer,” Talo said. “We are able to provide solutions. We have our design and development team with prototyping facilities in Finland. We are able to help our customers in product and production development and in finding suitable development and manufacturing partners. Furthermore, we are licensing our battery technology to enable our customers to set up their own production lines.”
Expectations for the Battery Market
With these opportunities in place, thin film battery producers are highly optimistic about the market’s potential in the near- and long-term. Talo said that Enfucell’s expectations for the near term are trials and limited commercial series up to some 100,000 units level. Long-term, Enfucell believes that breakthroughs in several areas, notably cosmetics and healthcare, look most promising.
“We are seeing that over the years, the market has piloted and tested the various applications, and in so doing they have proven the Solicore batteries to be an extremely effective power source,” Eagleson said. “From these efforts and with the continued development of the application supply chain to produce all the necessary components beyond the battery, the market is poised for explosive growth.
“The near term is ramping up volumes in the millions in support of the powered card space currently being consumed, and it quickly growing into tens and then hundreds of millions of units over the next few years,” Eagleson added. “It is this hype growth that will benefit greatly from the availability of our commercially available printed battery. The ability to quickly and effectively scale utilizing a proven process such as printing will be key to ensuring as the market grows Solicore can and will meet the growing demands.”
David Savastano is the editor of Printed Electronics Now magazine, a sister publication of L&NW.