January 20, 2016

ORNL researchers use neutrons to gain insight into battery inefficiency

In a Fluid Interface Reactions, Structures and Transport Center project to probe a battery’s
atomic activity during its first charging cycle, Robert Sacci and colleagues used the
Spallation Neutron Source’s vibrational spectrometer to gain chemical information.
Image credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy; photographer Genevieve Martin.

(January 20, 2016)  Rechargeable batteries power everything from electric vehicles to wearable gadgets, but obstacles limit the creation of sleeker, longer-lasting and more efficient power sources. Batteries produce electricity when charged atoms, known as ions, move in a circuit from a positive end (anode) to a negative end (cathode) through a facilitating mix of molecules called an electrolyte.

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are improving the lifetimes of rechargeable batteries that run on lithium, a small atom that can pack tightly into graphite anode materials. The valuable ions are depleted as a battery charges, and they are also lost to the formation of a thin coating on a battery’s anode during initial charging. ORNL researchers used two of the most powerful neutron science facilities in the world to try to understand the dynamics behind this phenomenon.

In a paper published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry C, the ORNL researchers focused on the spontaneous growth of the thin coating, called the solid-electrolyte interphase (SEI). This nanoscale coating protects and stabilizes the new battery, but it comes at a cost. The electrolyte, a mixture of molecules composed of hydrogen, carbon, lithium and oxygen, is forced to break down to form this film.

“The big picture is to increase the amount of lithium we can put into a battery,” said Robert Sacci, lead author and Materials Science and Technology Division scientist. “When you develop a battery, you put in excess lithium because a lot of that lithium gets eaten up or taken away from usability to form this thin film.”

Sacci and colleagues used beams of subatomic particles called neutrons to delve into a battery’s atomic reactivity during its first charging cycle. Neutrons were necessary because they can easily enter three-dimensional structures and are sensitive to changes in hydrogen concentration, a major component of electrolytes.

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