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Research Highlights

Seeing the Forest and the Trees to Find Parasitic Reactions that Lead to Battery Failure

Atomic and mesoscale understanding of the formation of a troubling layer offers insights into ways to create a better battery

June 2017
Seeing the Forest and the Trees to Find Parasitic Reactions that Lead to Battery Failure

Researchers built a new stage and created a designer electrolyte to obtain both detailed and broad overviews of a troubling layer that causes promising lithium-sulfur batteries to fail.

Everyone's heard the phrase about seeing both the details and the big picture, and that struggle comes into sharp relief for those studying how to create batteries that last longer and cost less. It's difficult to see the details of atomic and topographical changes that lead to battery failure. For DOE's Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), Vijay Murugesan and his colleagues at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Texas A&M University found a way. The result? They saw reactions that led to a layer that smothers the electrode in energy-dense-but short-lived-lithium-sulfur batteries.

This research is thanks, in part, to a new device that let the team track the progression of sulfur in a vacuum inside a powerful scientific instrument and to the ability to model the reaction using advanced software and computing resources. "We can now realistically probe the reactions happening and view how the products actually spread," said Murugesan, researcher at PNNL.

Why It Matters

Better batteries affect everything from how you get to work to how long you can work on your laptop computer before finding an outlet. The results from this fundamental study benefit energy storage in two ways. First, to do the work, the team created a new "stage." This device let scientists determine the atomic composition and electronic and chemical state of the atoms on the electrode while the battery was running. Scientists can use this device to obtain a detailed view of other batteries.

"Doing this measurement is challenging," said Vaithiyalingam Shutthanandan, a PNNL scientist who worked on the research. "This is the first time we could access these levels of quantity and quality data while batteries were charging and discharging."

The second benefit of this study is the potential to solve the fading issue in lithium-sulfur batteries. "Sulfur is significantly cheaper than current cathode materials in lithium-ion batteries," said Murugesan. "So the total cost of a lithium-sulfur battery will be low. Simultaneously, the energy density will be a huge advantage-approximately five times more than lithium-ion batteries."

Read the full story on the Physical Sciences Research Highlights webpage.


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