The Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T) is known for creating advanced technology to help support missions and protect our nation. A lot of this technology must remain secret. However, sometimes the CIA develops a technology that may benefit the public and decides to release the discovery.
The following is the first article in a series that will explore DS&T technology that has made an impact on the public. This article will focus on the lithium-ion battery and the contributions this technology made to the medical community.
* * * * *
In the middle of the Cold War, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) John A. McCone realized that the CIA needed a technological edge over the Soviet Union. In 1963, McCone established the Directorate of Science and Technology. Its purpose was to use science and technology in new and innovative ways to help protect the nation.
One of the DS&T’s first projects was the development of the lithium-ion battery. The new battery would be used to improve the reliability and longevity of some technical operations.
Lithium-Ion Batteries: The Concept
The idea surrounding the lithium-ion battery was to create a power source that could provide a long-duration, high density energy supply in a small package.
In the early 1960s, both the private and public sectors were experimenting with creating batteries using lithium as the anode material. The breakthrough in the chemistry was adding the ion into the equation.
In order to do this, the ion which sublimes (easily evaporates) at room temperature was mixed with a polymer to make it easier to use and create a charge transfer complex which would be electrically conductive. The end result was a material that could be made into a cathode — an electrode through which electric current flows out a polarized electric device.
Lithium-ion batteries as produced commercially are used very reliably in applications requiring low currents i.e., microamps. The reliability of the lithium-ion cell made it the power source of choice for long term applications requiring low currents.
Sharing Technology with the Public
In the early 1960s, the Agency shared the lithium-ion battery concept with the public. A company working on an exploratory project developed and patented the first lithium-ion battery for commercial use in 1968.
Meanwhile, in Buffalo, NY, Wilson Greatbatch was working diligently to develop the first cardiac pacemaker that could safely regulate a human heartbeat. He succeeded and patented his creation in 1962. Next, Greatbatch had to find a suitable power source for his new invention. He found his answer in the lithium-ion battery.
Isaac, a senior scientist at the CIA, explains the significance of the two events, “Greatbatch recognized the value of the lithium-ion technology and proposed using it as the power source in the cardiac pacemaker. The breakthrough was the long battery life that lithium-ion could provide to power the pacemaker.”
The first pacemaker using a lithium-ion battery was introduced and implanted in a patient in 1972.
Impact on the Medical Community
Today, the lithium-ion battery is the most common type of battery used in pacemakers because of its reliability and life span. Most lithium-ion batteries can last 10 years or longer in a cardiac pacemaker.
What makes lithium-ion batteries even more valuable in cardiac pacemakers is that when the battery nears the end of its life, the voltage begins to decrease. Because of the battery’s decreasing voltage, electrical designers can design an end of life indicator for the pacemaker that allows the device to inform the doctor a new battery is needed. The battery can then be changed safely before it completely discharges.
Lithium-ion batteries can also be used for other medical applications, including:
- Neurostimulation, which involves electrical stimulation of the brain and spinal cord, and
- Insulin pumps for diabetics
Improvements and Future Use
In the 1980s, the Agency sought to improve the lithium-ion battery by increasing its rate capability from microamps to milliamps. They were successful, but the new battery was considerably more expensive.
“The medical community already had a lithium-ion battery that worked beautifully for the pacemaker,” Isaac said. “If they introduced a new version of the battery, they would need to run a lot of tests to ensure that it’s a 10-year battery. That could take a long time. The current lithium-ion battery used in cardiac pacemakers is here to stay, that is, unless they come up with something that lasts for 20 years.”
Isaac recognizes the value of sharing Agency innovations with the public. “If national security is not compromised, we have an obligation as a government agency to share our discoveries, especially if it will benefit the public,” he said. “It’s important to give back. Sometimes our advancements that we share may even create jobs for U.S. citizens.”
To learn more about Agency innovations, visit the Science & Technology section.
Related Stories and Links: