From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published August 3, 2011 03:26 PM

Better Battery Storage

MIT researchers have found a way to improve the energy density of a type of battery known as lithium-air (or lithium-oxygen) batteries, producing a device that could potentially pack several times more energy per pound than the lithium-ion batteries that now dominate the market for rechargeable devices in everything from cellphones to cars. Lithium batteries are disposable (primary) batteries that have lithium metal or lithium compounds as an anode. Depending on the design and chemical compounds used, lithium cells can produce voltages from 1.5 V to about 3.7 V, over twice the voltage of an ordinary zinc—carbon battery or alkaline battery. Lithium batteries are widely used in products such as portable consumer electronic devices.

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Lithium batteries find application in many long-life, critical devices, such as artificial pacemakers and other implantable electronic medical devices. These devices use specialized lithium-iodide batteries designed to last 15 or more years. But for other, less critical applications such as in toys, the lithium battery may actually outlast the device. In such cases, an expensive lithium battery may not be cost-effective.

Lithium batteries can be used in place of ordinary alkaline cells in many devices, such as clocks and cameras. Although they are more costly, lithium cells will provide much longer life, thereby minimizing battery replacement. However, attention must be given to the higher voltage developed by the lithium cells before using them as a drop-in replacement in devices that normally use ordinary zinc cells.

The new study is a continuation of a project that last year demonstrated improved efficiency in lithium-air batteries through the use of noble-metal-based catalysts. In principle, lithium-air batteries have the potential to pack even more punch for a given weight than lithium-ion batteries because they replace one of the heavy solid electrodes with a porous carbon electrode that stores energy by capturing oxygen from air flowing through the system, combining it with lithium ions to form lithium oxides.

The new work takes this advantage one step further, creating carbon-fiber-based electrodes that are substantially more porous than other carbon electrodes, and can therefore more efficiently store the solid oxidized lithium that fills the pores as the battery discharges.

During discharge, lithium-peroxide particles grow on the carbon fibers, adds co-author Betar Gallant, a graduate student in MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering. In designing an ideal electrode material, she says, it's important to "minimize the amount of carbon, which adds unwanted weight to the battery, and maximize the space available for lithium peroxide," the active compound that forms during the discharging of lithium-air batteries.

In earlier lithium-air battery research that Shao-Horn and her students reported last year, they demonstrated that carbon particles could be used to make efficient electrodes for lithium-air batteries. In that work, the carbon structures were more complex but only had about 70 percent void space.

The gravimetric energy stored by these electrodes — the amount of power they can store for a given weight — "is among the highest values reported to date, which shows that tuning the carbon structure is a promising route for increasing the energy density of lithium-air batteries," Gallant says. The result is an electrode that can store four times as much energy for its weight as present lithium-ion battery electrodes.

Because the electrodes take the form of orderly "carpets" of carbon fibers — unlike the randomly arranged carbon particles in other electrodes — it is relatively easy to use a scanning electron microscope to observe the behavior of the electrodes at intermediate states of charge. The researchers say this ability to observe the process, an advantage that they had not anticipated, is a critical step toward further improving battery performance. For example, it could help explain why existing systems degrade after many charge-discharge cycles.

For further information:   http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2011/better-battery-storage-0725.html

Photo:  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia

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