Better batteries that charge quickly and last a long time are a brass ring for engineers. But despite decades of research and innovation, a fundamental understanding of exactly how batteries work at the smallest of scales has remained elusive.
In a paper published this week in the journal Science, a team led by William Chueh, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford and a faculty scientist at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, has devised a way to peer as never before into the electrochemical reaction that fuels the most common rechargeable cell in use today: the lithium-ion battery.
By visualizing the fundamental building blocks of batteries – small particles typically measuring less than 1/100th of a human hair in size – the team members have illuminated a process that is far more complex than once thought. Both the method they developed to observe the battery in real time and their improved understanding of the electrochemistry could have far-reaching implications for battery design, management and beyond.
“It gives us fundamental insights into how batteries work,” said Jongwoo Lim, a co-lead author of the paper and post-doctoral researcher at the Stanford Institute for Materials & Energy Sciences at SLAC. “Previously, most studies investigated the average behavior of the whole battery. Now, we can see and understand how individual battery particles charge and discharge.”