May 11, 2012


Better batteries from the ground up

ORNL microscopy explores the "room at the bottom" in lithium-ion batteries

Today, people talk about their electronic devices almost as if they were living, breathing beings. We wake our computers up, our cellphones die and we have longer conversations with our GPS devices than with many of our friends.

As new wireless technologies appear in devices from tablet computers to electric cars, efforts to improve these life forms focus on a common organ: the heart-like battery. Yet despite an accelerating demand for battery-powered devices, the pulse of the electronics world is not as well understood as you might think.

"In some sense, we think of batteries are ideal devices, but from a chemical viewpoint, they are very complicated," says ORNL senior scientist Sergei Kalinin. "Batteries look ideal only when they're inside a package, and you don't care what's inside."

Kalinin is among a team of scientists at ORNL's Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences that is developing new microscopic methods to analyze and understand nanoscale complexities inside electrochemical systems such as lithium-ion batteries. "Richard Feynman famously noted that there is plenty of room at the bottom," Kalinin says, referring to the physicist's 1959 talk on the potential of nanoscience. "This room does not do us much good if we cannot explore it."

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