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Monthly Archives: November 2015

Lithium-oxygen battery advances

Researchers have successfully demonstrated how several of the problems impeding the practical development of the so-called ‘ultimate’ battery could be overcome.

What we’ve achieved is a significant advance for this technology and suggests whole new areas for research

Clare Grey

Scientists have developed a working laboratory demonstrator of a lithium-oxygen battery which has very high energy density, is more than 90% efficient, and, to date, can be recharged more than 2000 times, showing how several of the problems holding back the development of these devices could be solved.

Lithium-oxygen, or lithium-air, batteries have been touted as the ‘ultimate’ battery due to their theoretical energy density, which is ten times that of a lithium-ion battery. Such a high energy density would be comparable to that of gasoline – and would enable an electric car with a battery that is a fifth the cost and a fifth the weight of those currently on the market to drive from London to Edinburgh on a single charge.

However, as is the case with other next-generation batteries, there are several practical challenges that need to be addressed before lithium-air batteries become a viable alternative to gasoline.

Now, researchers from the University of Cambridge have demonstrated how some of these obstacles may be overcome, and developed a lab-based demonstrator of a lithium-oxygen battery which has higher capacity, increased energy efficiency and improved stability over previous attempts.

Their demonstrator relies on a highly porous, ‘fluffy’ carbon electrode made from graphene (comprising one-atom-thick sheets of carbon atoms), and additives that alter the chemical reactions at work in the battery, making it more stable and more efficient. While the results, reported in the journal Science, are promising, the researchers caution that a practical lithium-air battery still remains at least a decade away.

“What we’ve achieved is a significant advance for this technology and suggests whole new areas for research – we haven’t solved all the problems inherent to this chemistry, but our results do show routes forward towards a practical device,” said Professor Clare Grey of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, the paper’s senior author.

Many of the technologies we use every day have been getting smaller, faster and cheaper each year – with the notable exception of batteries. Apart from the possibility of a smartphone which lasts for days without needing to be charged, the challenges associated with making a better battery are holding back the widespread adoption of two major clean technologies: electric cars and grid-scale storage for solar power.

“In their simplest form, batteries are made of three components: a positive electrode, a negative electrode and an electrolyte,’’ said Dr Tao Liu, also from the Department of Chemistry, and the paper’s first author.

In the lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries we use in our laptops and smartphones, the negative electrode is made of graphite (a form of carbon), the positive electrode is made of a metal oxide, such as lithium cobalt oxide, and the electrolyte is a lithium salt dissolved in an organic solvent. The action of the battery depends on the movement of lithium ions between the electrodes. Li-ion batteries are light, but their capacity deteriorates with age, and their relatively low energy densities mean that they need to be recharged frequently.

Over the past decade, researchers have been developing various alternatives to Li-ion batteries, and lithium-air batteries are considered the ultimate in next-generation energy storage, because of their extremely high energy density. However, previous attempts at working demonstrators have had low efficiency, poor rate performance, unwanted chemical reactions, and can only be cycled in pure oxygen.

What Liu, Grey and their colleagues have developed uses a very different chemistry than earlier attempts at a non-aqueous lithium-air battery, relying on lithium hydroxide (LiOH) instead of lithium peroxide (Li2O2). With the addition of water and the use of lithium iodide as a ‘mediator’, their battery showed far less of the chemical reactions which can cause cells to die, making it far more stable after multiple charge and discharge cycles.

By precisely engineering the structure of the electrode, changing it to a highly porous form of graphene, adding lithium iodide, and changing the chemical makeup of the electrolyte, the researchers were able to reduce the ‘voltage gap’ between charge and discharge to 0.2 volts. A small voltage gap equals a more efficient battery – previous versions of a lithium-air battery have only managed to get the gap down to 0.5 – 1.0 volts, whereas 0.2 volts is closer to that of a Li-ion battery, and equates to an energy efficiency of 93%.

The highly porous graphene electrode also greatly increases the capacity of the demonstrator, although only at certain rates of charge and discharge. Other issues that still have to be addressed include finding a way to protect the metal electrode so that it doesn’t form spindly lithium metal fibres known as dendrites, which can cause batteries to explode if they grow too much and short-circuit the battery.

Additionally, the demonstrator can only be cycled in pure oxygen, while the air around us also contains carbon dioxide, nitrogen and moisture, all of which are generally harmful to the metal electrode.

“There’s still a lot of work to do,” said Liu. “But what we’ve seen here suggests that there are ways to solve these problems – maybe we’ve just got to look at things a little differently.”

“While there are still plenty of fundamental studies that remain to be done, to iron out some of the mechanistic details, the current results are extremely exciting – we are still very much at the development stage, but we’ve shown that there are solutions to some of the tough problems associated with this technology,” said Grey.

The authors acknowledge support from the US Department of Energy, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Johnson Matthey and the European Union via Marie Curie Actions and the Graphene Flagship. The technology has been patented and is being commercialised through Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm.

Reference:
Liu, T et. al. ‘Cycling Li-O2 Batteries via LiOH Formation and Decomposition.’ Science (2015). DOI: 10.1126/science.aac7730

– See more at: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/new-design-points-a-path-to-the-ultimate-battery#sthash.Uolil6o5.dpuf

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Cal Tech/JPL proposes dark matter hair

This artist's rendering zooms in on what dark matter "hairs" might look like around Earth
This artist’s rendering zooms in on what dark matter “hairs” might look like around Earth.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist's rendering zooms in on what dark matter "hairs" might look like around Earth
The root of a dark matter hair produced from particles going through Jupiter’s core would be about 1 trillion times denser than average.

The solar system might be a lot hairier than we thought.

A new study publishing this week in the Astrophysical Journal by Gary Prézeau of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, proposes the existence of long filaments of dark matter, or “hairs.”

Dark matter is an invisible, mysterious substance that makes up about 27 percent of all matter and energy in the universe. The regular matter, which makes up everything we can see around us, is only 5 percent of the universe. The rest is dark energy, a strange phenomenon associated with the acceleration of our expanding universe.

Neither dark matter nor dark energy has ever been directly detected, although many experiments are trying to unlock the mysteries of dark matter, whether from deep underground or in space.

Based on many observations of its gravitational pull in action, scientists are certain that dark matter exists, and have measured how much of it there is in the universe to an accuracy of better than one percent. The leading theory is that dark matter is “cold,” meaning it doesn’t move around much, and it is “dark” insofar as it doesn’t produce or interact with light.

Galaxies, which contain stars made of ordinary matter, form because of fluctuations in the density of dark matter. Gravity acts as the glue that holds both the ordinary and dark matter together in galaxies.

According to calculations done in the 1990s and simulations performed in the last decade, dark matter forms “fine-grained streams” of particles that move at the same velocity and orbit galaxies such as ours.

“A stream can be much larger than the solar system itself, and there are many different streams crisscrossing our galactic neighborhood,” Prézeau said.

Prézeau likens the formation of fine-grained streams of dark matter to mixing chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Swirl a scoop of each together a few times and you get a mixed pattern, but you can still see the individual colors.

“When gravity interacts with the cold dark matter gas during galaxy formation, all particles within a stream continue traveling at the same velocity,” Prézeau said.

But what happens when one of these streams approaches a planet such as Earth? Prézeau used computer simulations to find out.

His analysis finds that when a dark matter stream goes through a planet, the stream particles focus into an ultra-dense filament, or “hair,” of dark matter. In fact, there should be many such hairs sprouting from Earth.

A stream of ordinary matter would not go through Earth and out the other side. But from the point of view of dark matter, Earth is no obstacle.  According to Prézeau’s simulations, Earth’s gravity would focus and bend the stream of dark matter particles into a narrow, dense hair.

Hairs emerging from planets have both “roots,” the densest concentration of dark matter particles in the hair, and “tips,” where the hair ends. When particles of a dark matter stream pass through Earth’s core, they focus at the “root” of a hair, where the density of the particles is about a billion times more than average. The root of such a hair should be around 600,000 miles (1 million kilometers) away from the surface, or twice as far as the moon. The stream particles that graze Earth’s surface will form the tip of the hair, about twice as far from Earth as the hair’s root.

“If we could pinpoint the location of the root of these hairs, we could potentially send a probe there and get a bonanza of data about dark matter,” Prézeau said.

A stream passing through Jupiter’s core would produce even denser roots: almost 1 trillion times denser than the original stream, according to Prézeau’s simulations.

“Dark matter has eluded all attempts at direct detection for over 30 years. The roots of dark matter hairs would be an attractive place to look, given how dense they are thought to be,” said Charles Lawrence, chief scientist for JPL’s astronomy, physics and technology directorate.

Another fascinating finding from these computer simulations is that the changes in density found inside our planet – from the inner core, to the outer core, to the mantle to the crust – would be reflected in the hairs. The hairs would have “kinks” in them that correspond to the transitions between the different layers of Earth.

Theoretically, if it were possible to obtain this information, scientists could use hairs of cold dark matter to map out the layers of any planetary body, and even infer the depths of oceans on icy moons.

Further study is needed to support these findings and unlock the mysteries of the nature of dark matter.

The California Institute of Technology manages JPL for NASA.

Elizabeth Landau
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-6425
Elizabeth.Landau@jpl.nasa.gov

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