A team of materials scientists at Harvard University, led by Professor Jennifer Lewis, have taken an award from the printed electronics industry for their work on groundbreaking 3D printed lithium-ion microbatteries.

And those batteries are smaller than a grain of sand.

The printing technology works at room temperature (not the high temperatures normally required to work with high-performance electronic components) and that makes it possible to print the materials on plastic without causing damage to the substrate.

"This is really more a revolution in the way things are manufactured," Lewis said.

While the battery materials aren't revolutionary, Lewis says her group holds eight patents and is hard at work licensing and commercializing the technology. The team's "functional inks" can dry and become batteries and basic electronic components like wires, antennas and electrodes, but the real breakout moment was the development of nozzles and high-pressure extruders to print the batteries with stunning accuracy using industrial 3D printers.

The team's findings received the IDTechEx Academic R&D Award during the Printed Electronics USA 2013 event in Santa Clara, California.

Lewis, the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a Core Faculty Member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, won the award for making "a significant contribution over the past 24 months to the understanding of the principles and accrued knowledge behind printed electronics."

The lithium-ion batteries can be created as small as a single millimeter square by utilizing microscale architectures and structures which boast 100-nanometer output to ape the functionality of batteries much larger.

Using suspended nanoparticles of lithium and silver, the process can create wiring and cells by depositing the "inks" from hundreds of nozzles at once.

Clocking in at some 1000 times smaller than any commercially-available rechargeable battery, Lewis says applications for the product include biomedical devices and even "smart dust," or distributed sensor arrays.

The initial work on the project was released to the public in June of this year and published online at Advanced Materials.

Lewis co-authored the work with Shen Dillon, an Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, lead author Ke Sun, a graduate student in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Teng-Sing Wei, a graduate student at Harvard, Bok Yeop Ahn, a Senior Research Scientist at the Wyss Institute and SEAS; and Jung Yoon Seo of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.