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Nanoscale Imaging Just Gave Us a Window Into Why Our Batteries Die So Fast

New nanoscale imaging technology will let researchers pinpoint why the batteries that power our electronics run out of steam so fast.
November 28, 2012, 10:06pm

It all comes down to batteries. Lithium-ion batteries. They make the electronic world go round. They’re in our gadgets, our laptops, our smart phones. They store the juice that makes electric cars possible, and someday, hopefully, maybe, they’ll store the power generated from wind turbines and solar arrays so that we can rely on clean energy around the clock.

But right now, they kind of suck. They’re lightweight, but dense and bulky. And they lose their capacity to hold a charge too quickly. As anyone who owns an iPhone knows, after a couple months of use, they’re barely lasting out the day without a second charge.


As Brookhaven National Laboratory explains over at PhysOrg, “these dense and lightweight energy storage devices begin to degrade over time, steadily losing total capacity even when sitting idle on the shelf.” If we hope to build longer-lasting smart phones, bring the costs of EVs down, or reliably store clean power, we’re going to need serious advances in lithium-ion engineering and battery storage tech.

So, to pinpoint why the things degrade so quickly, Brookhaven has turned to nanotech. PhysOrg has more:

researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and collaborating institutions have developed methods of examining lithium-ion reactions in real-time with nanoscale precision, offering unprecedented insights into these crucial materials. The technique uses a novel electrochemical cell and transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to track lithium reactions and precisely expose subtle changes that occur in batteries’ electrodes over time. The results—published this November in Nature Communications—demonstrate the successful technique and reveal a surprisingly fast lithium conversion process that moves layer-by-layer through individual nanoparticles. “We’ve opened a fundamentally new window into this popular technology,” said Brookhaven Lab physicist and lead author Feng Wang. “The live, nanoscale imaging may help pave the way for developing longer-lasting, higher-capacity lithium-ion batteries. That means better consumer electronics, and the potential for large-scale, emission-free energy storage.”

They’re basically like turning a super-powerful microscope on the inner-workings of lithium-ion batteries, down to the nano-scale, in order to figure out what eats them away. Knowledge gathered here could be used to combat the process—to build better and more resilient batteries. Batteries that could see electric cars keeping charges for longer, longer—and most intriguingly, batteries that could store power from wind turbines and solar cells without eroding away too quickly.

Perfect the lithium-ion battery and bring costs down, and you kill fossil fuels and internal combustion engines. It’s that simple, kind of.