Battery Research

Dramatic changes in the world of batteries over recent decades have helped usher in our modern technological world. Today, many of our electronic devices, from laptops to smartphones, are powered by rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, and they could soon extend into many other areas as well. This includes transport, through the ongoing development and adoption of electric vehicles.

Adoption of Li-Ion Batteries

Adoption of a lithium cobalt oxide cathode and a graphite anode led to the first rechargeable Li-ion battery, which was commercialized in 1991. Li-ion batteries are now the gold standard for rechargeable batteries, hence their ubiquity in portable electronic devices.

Battery Sample

Yet there is significant room for improvement. Although less susceptible than other battery types, Li-ion batteries still suffer from ‘self-discharge’, whereby chemical reactions inside the battery reduce its stored charge (by up to 3% per month). Li-ion batteries also exhibit limited capacity, inaccurate estimates of remaining charge, and are notoriously expensive to produce. Furthermore, they can suffer from the growth of crystalline needles of lithium, known as dendrites, from the anode. If these dendrites grow to reach the cathode, they can short-circuit the battery, potentially causing it to catch fire or even explode.

 

Battery Materials Research

Scientists are actively investigating various ways to overcome these issues – from producing improved Li-ion batteries by synthesizing better battery materials to developing next-generation battery technologies that might one day replace Li-ion batteries as the gold standard. But doing this requires precise, sensitive techniques for analyzing and characterizing these materials and technologies.

The main analytical techniques used to characterize Li-ion battery materials include:

  • Nanoindentation, a very common method for measuring the mechanical properties of materials.
  • Atomic force microscopy (AFM) characterization, which works by ‘touching’ the surface of materials with a mechanical probe to map their topography and properties with nanoscale resolution.

 

Future Development

Looking to the future, new lithium-based battery technologies are in the pipeline – including metal, sulfur and air-based technologies – each with specific challenges associated with their characterization. Novel characterization approaches may overcome these challenges, and explore the ultimate applications of more powerful batteries, from powering electric vehicles to storing renewable energy.