New Research Poised to Transform the Lithium Battery

Posted June 22, 2016

Major research developments in lithium-ion and lithium-air battery technologies were published in May by teams from the University of Maryland U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the University of Texas Dallas, respectively. The two innovations give an excellent glimpse into what lithium battery technology might look like in the next three-to-five years.

The University of Maryland team says that adding salt to the lithium-ion slurry allows them to develop a battery that they state is simultaneously safer, cheaper, more environmentally friendly and more powerful than current market models.

The University of Texas Dallas team says they discovered new soluble catalyst materials for lithium-air batteries that capitalize on the chemical oxidation reaction, and can expand battery capacity for cellphones and electric cars up to five times longer than current batteries.

How Will This Research Affect Lithium Batteries?

Both of these discoveries have the ability to emphasize the advantages of lithium-ion batteries and shape where the lithium battery manufacturers and industry leaders invest their resources.

The UMD innovation also shores up the glaring safety weaknesses of current lithium-ion batteries, which — although they’re drastically safer than lead-acid batteries — still operate with fire risk, include poisonous chemicals and environmental hazards, particularly the batteries used in portable electronics.

A peer-reviewed paper based on the UMD study was published recently in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

"Our purpose was to invent an aqueous lithium-ion battery that is absolutely safe, green, and cost-efficient, while delivering energy density comparable to commercial lithium-ion batteries," Liumin Suo, postdoctoral research associate in UMD's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, said in a press release. "We believe our batteries will have very wide applications including electric energy storage, airspace devices, and portable electric devices."

The wide array of uses already in place for lithium-ion batteries makes this innovation simple yet profound, while affecting numerous verticals and energy applications. This “salt-in-water” lithium-ion technology will be particularly useful in applications that involve large energies at kilowatt or megawatt levels, since it produces more energy output than current lithium-ion batteries. Plus the technology will be applicable where battery safety and toxicity are crucial, including non-flammable batteries for airplanes, naval vehicles, or spaceships.

"The water-in-salt electrolytes developed by this group have unexpectedly opened the possibility of high-voltage aqueous electrochemical systems, impervious to water splitting reactions. The new water-in-bisalt electrolytes, incorporating two or more lithium salts, may soon lead to safer, cheaper, and longer lasting water-based lithium-ion batteries," Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor Martin Bazant, a leading battery researcher who was not involved in the study, said in the UMD press release.

The Future of Lithium Batteries

While the UMD team has figured out an innovation that improves the lithium battery industry’s current products, the UT Dallas researchers are paving the way toward the future for lightweight lithium air batteries.

Lithium-air batteries operate similarly to zinc-air batteries, which are commonly used in hearing aids. The lithium-oxygen system works by taking in oxygen from the air to power chemical reactions that release electricity, which allows for more lithium to be placed in the battery and offers a higher energy density than current lithium-ion batteries. The UT Dallas team states that lithium-air batteries boast an energy density comparable to gasoline — with theoretical energy densities up to 10 times greater than current lithium-ion batteries, which gives the lithium-air technology untapped potential for storage of renewable energy.

If the UT Dallas lithium-air batteries can be researched to market viability, they’ll be one-fifth the cost and weight of lithium-ion batteries presently on the market. For example, a stable lithium-air battery would allow an electric car to drive 400 miles on a single charge, and a mobile phone can last a week without recharging.

"There's huge promise in lithium-air batteries. However, despite the aggressive research being done by groups all over the world, those promises are not being delivered in real life," Dr. Kyeongjae Cho, the lead researcher and a professor of materials science and engineering, said in a press release. "So this is very exciting progress. (UT Dallas graduate student) Yongping Zheng and our collaboration team have demonstrated that this problem can be solved. Hopefully, this discovery will revitalize research in this area and create momentum for further development."

Lithium-air batteries are an immensely challenging project because most industry and academic attempts result in unstable batteries with poor performance, low efficiency and unwanted chemical reactions.

Cho and Zheng have introduced new research that focuses on a new electrolyte catalyst inside the battery called dimethylphenazine, which has higher reaction stability and increased voltage efficiency. They’re stating that this new catalyst should address several of the problems plaguing lithium-air researchers.

Cho states that his catalyst research should open the door to additional advances in lithium battery technology, but it will likely take five or 10 years before the research becomes usable by consumers. But he said it could take five to 10 years before the research translates into new batteries that can be used in consumer devices and electric vehicles.

The innovations produced by the UMD and UT Dallas teams show that lithium batteries have an exciting future. However, that future is still a ways off, and global energy demands are only increasing. Get in touch with us to learn more about how RELiON’s lithium-ion technology can revitalize your energy needs.

(Information for this report was provided by the University of Maryland and the University of Texas Dallas.)