Eco Innovation

Revolutionising battery technology … with soap

27th November 2023
Sheryl Miles

In a study published in Nature Materials, a collaborative effort by Brown University and Idaho National Laboratory engineers have uncovered potential advancements in the longevity of lithium batteries.

The study draws parallels between the functioning of certain electrolytes and the action of soap in water.

How soap is helping battery innovation

The typical action of soap in handwashing involves the formation of micelles, which encapsulate and eliminate grease and dirt. This process mirrors the operation of an advanced electrolyte known as a localised high-concentration electrolyte in lithium batteries. Researchers suggest that understanding this mechanism could be pivotal in developing batteries with extended lifespans and higher energy density.

Professor Yue Qi from Brown’s School of Engineering expressed the ambition to enhance the energy density of batteries significantly. The aim is to create batteries capable of powering phones for an entire week or electric vehicles that can travel up to 500 miles per charge. This vision involves substituting materials in traditional batteries to achieve these feats.

Transitioning to lithium metal batteries

Scientists are focusing on lithium metal batteries, which hold a higher energy storage capacity compared to current lithium-ion batteries. The obstacle lies in the inefficiency of traditional electrolytes, which are crucial in facilitating the electrochemical reactions in batteries.

To address this challenge, scientists at Idaho National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory engineered localised high-concentration electrolytes. These electrolytes combine a high concentration of salt with a diluent, enhancing the flow and maintaining the power of the battery.

The potential of new electrolytes

Previous laboratory tests have shown promise, but a comprehensive understanding of these electrolytes was lacking until this study. Bin Li, a senior scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, elucidated the formation of micelle-like structures within these electrolytes, a revelation crucial for optimising their composition and effectiveness.

The study offers valuable insights for refining the balance of ingredients in localised high-concentration electrolytes. Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory have applied these findings, noting improvements in the longevity of lithium metal batteries. The work, intriguingly linked to the common substance of soap, continues to explore the potential of these electrolytes in overcoming design challenges in high-density batteries.

“The concept of the micelle may be new for the electrolyte, but it’s actually very common for our daily life,” remarked Qi.

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