Leap in Lithium-Air Battery Tech Could Supercharge Electric Cars

Lithium-air batteries can have up to 10 times more capacity than lithium-ion ones

2 min read
Leap in Lithium-Air Battery Tech Could Supercharge Electric Cars
A schematic showing the formation of lithium hydroxide (LiOH) on the graphene electrode on discharging a non-aqueous lithium-oxygen battery in the presence of the redox mediator, lithium iodide, and trace water. On charging, the iodide is oxidized to iodine, which helps to remove the LiOH and reform the bare graphene electrode.
Photo Illustration: Tao Liu, Clare Grey and Gabriella Bocchetti

Lithium-air batteries can in principle hold five to 10 times as much energy as a lithium-ion battery of the same weight and double the amount for the same volume. They could theoretically give electric cars the same range as gasoline ones. Now scientists in England claim to have overcome many of the current barriers preventing their use.

In a lithium-air battery, the anode is generally made of lithium metal, the cathode is typically a porous carbon material that brings in oxygen from the surrounding air, and the electrolyte is a liquid connecting the anode and the cathode, helping ions shuffle between them. As the lithium oxidizes, it discharges electricity. Recharging the device reverses the process.

A number of major pitfalls have kept lithium-air batteries from meeting their full potential. For instance, when they discharge electricity, lithium peroxide particles usually form that can clog the porous cathodes, stifling the batteries. In addition, unwanted chemical reactions can attack the electrolytes, reducing the battery's overall efficiency. Moreover, these devices are very sensitive to moisture in the air, which can corrode the lithium metal anode.

To overcome these problems, scientists at the University of Cambridge designed their battery to produce lithium hydroxide crystals instead of lithium peroxide particles, and added lithium iodide as a mediator compound. These changes greatly reduced unwanted chemical reactions that can damage the electrolytes of lithium-air batteries and kill the devices.

Moreover, the researchers used macroporous reduced graphene oxide for their cathode instead of the mesoporous carbon typically used in other lithium-air battery cathodes. This thousand-fold increase in pore size — from pores 10 to 100 nanometers wide to ones 10 to 100 micrometers wide — helped prevent the lithium hydroxide crystals that formed during battery operations from clogging the pores. The scientists introduced the solvent dimethoxyethane to help remove these crystals as the battery charged and discharged.

Furthermore, this new design showed a high tolerance for water, suggesting it could tolerate moisture in the air. "This finding of water tolerance is another step forward towards a practical lithium-air battery," says study lead author Tao Liu at the University of Cambridge.

Future research can explore bringing more oxygen into the device, says study co-author Clare Grey, also of the University of Cambridge. The researchers need to find a way to keep the lithium metal from forming spindly fibers known as dendrites, which can cause batteries to short-circuit and explode, Liu says. Moreover, while this battery can tolerate water, the researchers also have to figure out how to protect it from carbon dioxide and nitrogen, which can also corrode the lithium metal, Liu adds.

The scientists detailed their findings in the Oct. 30 issue of the journal Science. The researchers have patented their work, and the intellectual property is owned by Cambridge Enterprises.

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To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

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China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

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EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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