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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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Oxford Researchers Reveal How To Maximize Solid-State Battery Potential

  • Using advanced X-ray imaging, Oxford scientists identified how lithium dendrites compromise the charging process in solid-state batteries.
  • Solid-state batteries replace the flammable liquid electrolyte in conventional batteries with a solid one and utilize lithium metal, leading to greater energy storage and safety.
  • Insights from the research suggest a potential to meet a significant portion of global battery demand by 2040, with applications spanning consumer electronics, transportation, and aviation.

Significantly improved electric vehicle (EV) batteries could be a step closer thanks to a new study led by University of Oxford researchers.

The research findings have been published in Nature.

Using advanced imaging techniques, the team revealed mechanisms which cause lithium metal solid-state batteries (Li-SSBs) to fail. If these can be overcome, solid-state batteries using lithium metal anodes could deliver a step-change improvement in EV battery range, safety and performance, and help advance electrically powered aviation.

One of the co-lead authors of the study Dominic Melvin, a PhD student in the University of Oxford’s Department of Materials, said, “Progressing solid-state batteries with lithium metal anodes is one of the most important challenges facing the advancement of battery technologies. While lithium-ion batteries of today will continue to improve, research into solid-state batteries has the potential to be high-reward and a gamechanger technology.”

Li-SSBs are distinct from other batteries because they replace the flammable liquid electrolyte in conventional batteries with a solid electrolyte and use lithium metal as the anode (negative electrode). The use of the solid electrolyte improves the safety, and the use of lithium metal means more energy can be stored.

A critical challenge with Li-SSBs, however, is that they are prone to short circuit when charging due to the growth of ‘dendrites’ the filaments of lithium metal that crack through the ceramic electrolyte. As part of the Faraday Institution’s SOLBAT project, researchers from the University of Oxford’s Departments of Materials, Chemistry and Engineering Science, have led a series of in-depth investigations to understand more about how this short-circuiting happens.

In this latest study, the group used an advanced imaging technique called X-ray computed tomography at Diamond Light Source to visualize dendrite failure in unprecedented detail during the charging process. The new imaging study revealed that the initiation and propagation of the dendrite cracks are separate processes, driven by distinct underlying mechanisms. Dendrite cracks initiate when lithium accumulates in sub-surface pores. When the pores become full, further charging of the battery increases the pressure, leading to cracking. In contrast, propagation occurs with lithium only partially filling the crack, through a wedge-opening mechanism which drives the crack open from the rear.

This new understanding points the way forward to overcoming the technological challenges of Li-SSBs. Dominic Melvin said, “For instance, while pressure at the lithium anode can be good to avoid gaps developing at the interface with the solid electrolyte on discharge, our results demonstrate that too much pressure can be detrimental, making dendrite propagation and short-circuit on charging more likely.”

Sir Peter Bruce, Wolfson Chair, Professor of Materials at the University of Oxford, Chief Scientist of the Faraday Institution, and corresponding author of the study, said, “The process by which a soft metal such as lithium can penetrate a highly dense hard ceramic electrolyte has proved challenging to understand with many important contributions by excellent scientists around the world. We hope the additional insights we have gained will help the progress of solid-state battery research towards a practical device.”

According to a recent report by the Faraday Institution, SSBs may satisfy 50% of global demand for batteries in consumer electronics, 30% in transportation, and over 10% in aircraft by 2040.

Professor Pam Thomas, CEO, Faraday Institution, said, “SOLBAT researchers continue to develop a mechanistic understanding of solid-state battery failure – one hurdle that needs to be overcome before high-power batteries with commercially relevant performance could be realized for automotive applications. The project is informing strategies that cell manufacturers might use to avoid cell failure for this technology. This application-inspired research is a prime example of the type of scientific advances that the Faraday Institution was set up to drive.”

***

One can have great hopes for the solid state lithium metal battery chemistry. Should the self destruction matter of the dendrites get solved, the power available should be quite interesting.

The is a downside. They will be heavier in the same volume. Seldom does a battery technology actually cut weights when the demand is more power and operating time. Its possible – just unlikely. They will also cost more as more lithium is consumed in each battery build.

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None of this is necessarily bad, one simply has to keep an eye out for all the battery chemistry progress. But projecting a market dominator a few years out is really just biased speculation.

There could be a lot of good tech coming. The more the better!

By Brian Westenhaus via New Energy and Fuel

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