Lithium Ion Batteries Get Big Performance Boost From Wonder Material Known As… Sand

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A new lithium ion battery that notably outperforms the industry standard across a wide variety of different parameters was recently created by researchers at the University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering, through the use of a new “wonder material.”

The new wonder material is, of course… sand. Yes. Just sand. Nothing else.

From left, (b) unpurified sand, (c) purified sand, and (d) vials of unpurified sand, purified sand, and nano silicon. Image Credit: University of California - Riverside
From left, (b) unpurified sand, (c) purified sand, and (d) vials of unpurified sand, purified sand, and nano silicon. Image Credit: University of California – Riverside

“This is the holy grail — a low cost, non-toxic, environmentally friendly way to produce high performance lithium ion battery anodes,” states Zachary Favors, a graduate student working with Cengiz and Mihri Ozkan, both engineering professors at UC Riverside.

The idea came to Favors, very unsurprisingly, while he was hanging out at the beach. The exact moment was when “he picked up some sand, took a close look at it and saw it was made up primarily of quartz, or silicon dioxide. ” That’s certainly a Eureka moment right there isn’t it?

Most commercial battery anodes currently in use (the industry standard) are composed of graphite. The material certainly works well but its limits have more or less been hit. As a result, researchers are currently exploring substitutes, of which silicon at the nanoscale is one.

There’s an issue with it, though: it degrades relatively quickly and it’s hard to produce cheaply in large amounts. That’s where the new work comes in.

The press release from UC Riverside provides more:

Favors set out to solve both these problems. He researched sand to find a spot in the United States where it is found with a high percentage of quartz. That took him to the Cedar Creek Reservoir, east of Dallas, where he grew up. Sand in hand, he came back to the lab at UC Riverside and milled it down to the nanometer scale, followed by a series of purification steps changing its color from brown to bright white, similar in color and texture to powdered sugar.

After that, he ground salt and magnesium, both very common elements found dissolved in sea water into the purified quartz. The resulting powder was then heated. With the salt acting as a heat absorber, the magnesium worked to remove the oxygen from the quartz, resulting in pure silicon.

The Ozkan team was pleased with how the process went. And they also encountered an added positive surprise. The pure nano-silicon formed in a very porous 3-D silicon sponge like consistency. That porosity has proved to be the key to improving the performance of the batteries built with the nano-silicon.

Via the improved performance, the researchers think that the lifespan of silicon-based electric vehicle batteries could be increased by as much as 300% or more. Of course until such claims have been demonstrated, it’s always worth taking them with a grain of salt (no pun intended).

The researchers are currently working to produce larger quantities of the nano-silicon beach sand, and will then begin working with larger battery designs — moving from coin-size batteries to pouch-size batteries, like those used in cell phones.

Patents have already been filed for the new technologies.

The new findings were just published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

James Ayre has 4830 posts and counting. See all posts by James Ayre

10 thoughts on “Lithium Ion Batteries Get Big Performance Boost From Wonder Material Known As… Sand

  • Your summary creates the impression this was more theoretical work then is true. They actually produced coin cells and cycled 1000 times with over 1024mAh capacity and 99.1% efficiency retained.

    I’m trying to figure out the voltage of the chemistry though. Based on my initial read through it’s 1v?

    • Is the anode material itself limiting the voltage or does it require the use of a less-stable electrolyte?

      • From everything else I have read the operating voltage of a silicone anode lithium batteries operate at the same voltage range as other lithium chemistries. I’ll chalk that up to my lack of understanding of their testing.

        Assuming that is true these batteries do appear very promising, especially if they can improve the performance at higher power levels.

  • Good to see progress, but still, my obsession: high voltage storage, trapping of lightning, even higher frequency A.C. sytems involving Super Capacitors with higher voltage ratings, static electric antennae that yield and trap high voltage spikes from the universe, lightning discharges and our own activities, even the earths fields . . . One more area for exploration as we discover the unending electrical energy available to humanity.
    Seeking very high capacity storage, perhaps there is something beyond the high amperage low voltage chemical cell systems . . .

    • Tapping lightning as an energy source is impractical. Even if you could build components suitable to handle the insane voltages and currents seen in the instant a lightning bolt hits, all you’re really doing is trying to tap a renewable energy source with a much, much…MUCH lower capacity factor than solar energy.

      • Worked with Geophysics teams, laid huge mile diameter coil of copper wire, as a storm approached,large but containable spikes occurred, but he usual A.C. available was more than enough to be rectified and stored even in a standard 12 volt battery . . .

        • Again, it still has a much, much, MUCH lower capacity factor than solar and would require huge breakthroughs in power electronics just to harness lightning for electric power.

  • OK, here’s the deal. Sand as quartz or silicon dioxide is already being mined like crazy by oil and gas. Here’s a rundown I prepared:

    Oil and gas is mining sand as a proppant for fracking. The sand gets mixed with the frack fluid and injected to keep the fractures open. This sand needs to be pretty much free of anything other than quartz. Beach sand can be full of many other minerals. It appears the interest in batteries is silicon dioxide to be turned into silicon. The magnesium is part of the purification process.

    Oil and gas is locking up high quality sand quarries throughout the midwest, where its mostly located. This is called Ottawa sand, based on the original mine developed in Ottawa, IL. There’s another smaller deposit of almost pure quartz sand in Texas and that was covered in the post.

    A typical horizontal fractured well uses 15,000 tons of sand. That’s a football field piled 12 feet high. We’re already digging up most of Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri to get at Ottawa sand for fracking. The same is happening to the deposit in Texas.

    This is an interesting topic, but the author should investigate this further. I’m guessing researchers are trying to sell simplicity, where there isn’t simplicity. Universities are putting out press releases nowadays. Mainly to get funding for further investigation. High quality sand is not going to be cheap to mine. Low quality sand has to get processed – and that’s not cheap or all that environmentally sound.

    • The oil and companies are shoving all the good water and good sand down a hole where no one can get it. Fracking Awesome!

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