Tracking lithium for better batteries

Imagine a mobile phone, gaming gadget or laptop with a battery that never needs replacing, or electric cars powered by batteries that are as fast to recharge as it is to refill your car with petrol.

Neeraj Sharma prepares a sample battery in the glove box. Credit: ANSTO
Neeraj Sharma prepares a sample battery in the glove box. Credit: ANSTO

Researchers at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) are unlocking the secret inner workings of lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries to develop better, safer portable power.

Li-ion batteries are becoming increasingly popular. They have higher energy densities (more power) and better cycle-ability (less power loss with each use and recharging) than other battery systems on the market.

However, there is much scope to improve their performance and safety. For example, widely used liquid electrolytes can be flammable and toxic, and solid electrolytes, while safer, are currently less efficient.

Researcher Dr Neeraj Sharma says an understanding of the electrochemistry of lithium within a battery and the mechanism of charge-transfer is fundamental to improving Li-ion batteries.

Neutron diffraction shows researchers what is happening at a molecular level inside the batteries in real time, tracking the movement of lithium ions during battery use (discharging) and recharging. This technique gleans information about the structure of a material by studying the way it scatters a beam of neutrons.

“The key thing in these batteries is what happens to the lithium. We have the sensitivity to see what happens and potentially improve the way these batteries work at an atomic level,” says Neeraj.

The ANSTO battery research is probing the factors that improve shelf life and safety, the speed of charging and discharging, and the optimal use of electrolytes. It’s a bright future for this versatile power source.

Photo: Neeraj Sharma prepares a sample battery in the glove box
Credit: ANSTO

Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Neeraj Sharma, Tel: +61 2 9717 7253,,