Dec 122010
 

The Medusa twist: formerly unobserved increase in length and twist of the anode in a nanobattery. (Credit: Courtesy DOE Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies)

Real-Time Observation of Nanowire Anode to Help Improve Lithium Batteries

A benchtop version of the world’s smallest battery — its anode a single nanowire one seven-thousandth the thickness of a human hair — has been created by a team led by Sandia National Laboratories researcher Jianyu Huang.

To better study the anode’s characteristics, the tiny rechargeable, lithium-based battery was formed inside a transmission electron microscope (TEM) at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT), a Department of Energy research facility jointly operated by Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories.

Says Huang of the work, reported in the Dec. 10 issue of the journalScience, “This experiment enables us to study the charging and discharging of a battery in real time and at atomic scale resolution, thus enlarging our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms by which batteries work.”

Because nanowire-based materials in lithium ion batteries offer the potential for significant improvements in power and energy density over bulk electrodes, more stringent investigations of their operating properties should improve new generations of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, laptops and cell phones.

“What motivated our work,” says Huang, “is that lithium ion batteries [LIB] have very important applications, but the low energy and power densities of current LIBs cannot meet the demand. To improve performance, we wanted to understand LIBs from the bottom up, and we thought in-situ TEM could bring new insights to the problem.”

Battery research groups do use nanomaterials as anodes, but in bulk rather than individually — a process, Huang says, that resembles “looking at a forest and trying to understand the behavior of an individual tree.”

The tiny battery created by Huang and co-workers consists of a single tin oxide nanowire anode 100 nanometers in diameter and 10 micrometers long, a bulk lithium cobalt oxide cathode three millimeters long, and an ionic liquid electrolyte. The device offers the ability to directly observe change in atomic structure during charging and discharging of the individual “trees.”

An unexpected find of the researchers was that the tin oxide nanowire rod nearly doubles in length during charging — far more than its diameter increases — a fact that could help avoid short circuits that may shorten battery life. “Manufacturers should take account of this elongation in their battery design,” Huang said. (The common belief of workers in the field has been that batteries swell across their diameter, not longitudinally.)

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