Lithium-ion batteries may soon be considerably safer, thanks to new research from Washington State University. Researchers there have created a new chewing gum–like battery material that promises to dramatically improve the safety of the technology.
Pretty much everyone in the industrial world has had personal experience with lithium-ion batteries. They’re used in everything from cellphones, to laptops, to airplanes. But, despite their ubiquity, they have a number of notable drawbacks, perhaps most notable of which is the use of highly acidic electrolytes which can corrosive damage and even start fires, and are also a health hazard. These dangers are mitigated to some degree, but certainly not completely, by the use of flame retardants and temperature sensors.
Image Credit: Chewing Gum via Flickr CC
To address this, the researchers — led by Katie Zhong, a Westinghouse Distinguished Professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering — have developed this new “gum-like” lithium battery electrolyte. This material can function very effectively as a battery’s liquid electrolyte but isn’t a fire hazard, as the conventional choices are.
Washington State University explains:
Researchers have been toying around with solid electrolytes to address safety concerns, but they don’t conduct electricity well and it’s difficult to connect them physically to the anode and cathode. Zhong was looking for a material that would work as well as liquid and could stay attached to the anode and cathode — “like when you get chewing gum on your shoe,” she told her students. Advised by Zhong, graduate student Yu “Will” Wang designed his electrolyte model specifically with gum in mind. It is twice as sticky as real gum and adheres very well to the other battery components.
The material, which is a hybrid of liquid and solid, contains liquid electrolyte material that is hanging on solid particles of wax or a similar material. Current can easily travel through the liquid parts of the electrolyte, but the solid particles act as a protective mechanism. If the material gets too hot, the solid melts and easily stops the electric conduction, preventing any fire hazard. The electrolyte material is also flexible and lightweight, which could be useful in future flexible electronics. You can stretch, smash, and twist it, and it continues to conduct electricity nearly as well as liquid electrolytes. Furthermore, the gummy electrolyte should be easy to assemble into current battery designs, says Zhong.
The researchers are planning to now continue their work by testing their material in real commercial-scale batteries. A patent has already been filed for the new material.
The new findings were just published in the journal Advanced Energy Materials.