Rechargeable lithium metal batteries have been known for four decades to offer energy storage capabilities far superior to today’s workhorse lithium-ion technology that powers our smartphones and laptops. But these batteries are not in common use today because, when recharged, they spontaneously grow treelike bumps called dendrites on the surface of the negative electrode.
Over many hours of operation, these dendrites grow to span the space between the negative and positive electrode, causing short-circuiting and a potential safety hazard.
Current technology focuses on managing these dendrites by putting up a mechanically strong barrier, normally a ceramic separator, between the negative and the positive electrodes to restrict the movement of the dendrite. The relative non-conductivity and brittleness of such barriers, however, means the battery must be operated at high temperature and are prone to failure when the barrier cracks.
But a Cornell team, led by chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Lynden Archer and graduate student Snehashis Choudhury, proposed in a recent study that by designing nanostructured membranes with pore dimensions below a critical value, it is possible to stop growth of dendrites in lithium batteries at room temperature.
"One of the best things about this discovery, Archer said, is that it’s a “drop-in solution,” meaning battery technology wouldn’t have to be radically altered to incorporate it.“The membrane can be incorporated with batteries in a variety of form factors, since it’s like a paint – and we can paint the surface of electrodes of any shape,” Choudhury added.
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