Scientists Finally Figure Out Why Batteries Explode

Posted: Oct 30 2017, 1:28am CDT | by , in News | Latest Science News

Scientists Finally Figures Out Why Batteries Explode
Credit: The American Chemical Society

Researchers have captured the first atomic-level images of finger-like growths that trigger battery fires

Scientists have taken a major step towards understanding why batteries catch fire. They have captured the first atomic-level images of finger-like growths called dendrites that can split the barrier between battery compartments and trigger short circuits or fires.

Batteries have become a ubiquitous part of our life as they power many of our electronic devices like laptops, iPods and mobile phones. But they keep spontaneously exploding and scaring users.

In order to investigate this problem in detail, a combined team of researchers Stanford University and the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory has used cryo-electron microscopy or cryo-EM inside lithium-ion batteries. It is a technique that images delicate, flash-frozen proteins and other "biological machines" at the smallest scale. This is the first time that anyone has applied the technique to examine the mechanism of batteries. Understanding the inner lives of batteries could improve safety and reliability of batteries.

“This is super exciting and opens up amazing opportunities," said Yi Cui, a professor at SLAC and Stanford University.

"With cryo-EM, you can look at a material that's fragile and chemically unstable and you can preserve its pristine state - what it looks like in a real battery - and look at it under high resolution. This includes all kinds of battery materials. The lithium metal we studied here is just one example, but it's an exciting and very challenging one."

In a lithium-ion battery, dendrites can grow under some charging conditions and cause short circuits. Researchers have already known of the growth of the dendrites inside the batteries. But until now, they have not been able to get atomic-scale images of dendrites or other sensitive battery parts. To their surprise, dendrites are crystalline, not the irregular shaped depicted in previous electron microscope shots.

Researchers not only looked at the structure of dendrite but also at a coating called SEI that develops as the dendrite reacts with the surrounding electrolyte. The new technique also revealed the locations of individual atoms in both the crystal and its SEI coating.

“We were really excited. This was the first time we were able to get such detailed images of a dendrite, and we also saw the nanostructure of the SEI layer for the first time," said Yanbin Li from Stanford. "This tool can help us understand what different electrolytes do and why certain ones work better than others."

The details of this research are published in a paper titled "Atomic structure of sensitive battery materials and interfaces revealed by cryo-electron microscopy," available in Science.

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The Author

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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