Research update: Improving batteries’ energy storage
New method allows a dramatic boost in capacity for a given weight.
researchers have found a way to improve the energy density of a type of
battery known as lithium-air (or lithium-oxygen) batteries, producing a
device that could potentially pack several times more energy per pound
than the lithium-ion batteries that now dominate the market for
rechargeable devices in everything from cellphones to cars.
The work is a continuation of a project that last year demonstrated
improved efficiency in lithium-air batteries through the use of
noble-metal-based catalysts. In principle, lithium-air batteries have
the potential to pack even more punch for a given weight than
lithium-ion batteries because they replace one of the heavy solid
electrodes with a porous carbon electrode that stores energy by
capturing oxygen from air flowing through the system, combining it with
lithium ions to form lithium oxides.
This diagram depicts the essential functioning of the lithium-air battery. Ions of lithium combine with oxygen from the air to form particles of lithium oxides, which attach themselves to carbon fibers on the electrode as the battery is being used. During recharging, the lithium oxides separate again into lithium and oxygen and the process can begin again.
Graphic: Courtesy of Mitchell, Gallant, and Shao-Horn
The new work takes this advantage one step further, creating
carbon-fiber-based electrodes that are substantially more porous than
other carbon electrodes, and can therefore more efficiently store the
solid oxidized lithium that fills the pores as the battery discharges.
"We grow vertically aligned arrays of carbon nanofibers using a chemical
vapor deposition process. These carpet-like arrays provide a highly
conductive, low-density scaffold for energy storage," explains Robert
Mitchell, a graduate student in MIT's Department of Materials Science
and Engineering (DMSE) and co-author of a paper describing the new
findings in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.
During discharge, lithium-peroxide particles grow on the carbon fibers,
adds co-author Betar Gallant, a graduate student in MIT's Department of
Mechanical Engineering. In designing an ideal electrode material, she
says, it's important to "minimize the amount of carbon, which adds
unwanted weight to the battery, and maximize the space available for
lithium peroxide," the active compound that forms during the discharging
of lithium-air batteries.
"We were able to create a novel carpet-like material — composed of more
than 90 percent void space — that can be filled by the reactive material
during battery operation," says Yang Shao-Horn, the Gail E. Kendall
Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and
Engineering and senior author of the paper. The other senior author of
the paper is Carl Thompson, the Stavros Salapatas Professor of Materials
Science and Engineering and interim head of DMSE.
In earlier lithium-air battery research that Shao-Horn and her students
reported last year, they demonstrated that carbon particles could be
used to make efficient electrodes for lithium-air batteries. In that
work, the carbon structures were more complex but only had about 70
percent void space.
The gravimetric energy stored by these electrodes — the amount of power
they can store for a given weight — "is among the highest values
reported to date, which shows that tuning the carbon structure is a
promising route for increasing the energy density of lithium-air
batteries," Gallant says. The result is an electrode that can store four
times as much energy for its weight as present lithium-ion battery
In the paper published last year, the team had estimated the kinds of
improvement in gravimetric efficiency that might be achieved with
lithium-air batteries; this new work "realizes this gravimetric gain,"
Shao-Horn says. Further work is still needed to translate these basic
laboratory advances into a practical commercial product, she cautions.
Because the electrodes take the form of orderly "carpets" of carbon
fibers — unlike the randomly arranged carbon particles in other
electrodes — it is relatively easy to use a scanning electron microscope
to observe the behavior of the electrodes at intermediate states of
charge. The researchers say this ability to observe the process, an
advantage that they had not anticipated, is a critical step toward
further improving battery performance. For example, it could help
explain why existing systems degrade after many charge-discharge cycles.
Source: MIT New Release; July 25, 2011
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