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Scientists Quantify Particle Fracture in Lithium Ion Batteries

Materials in lithium ion battery electrodes expand and contract during charge and discharge. These volume changes drive particle fracture, which shortens battery lifetime. A group of ETH and PSI scientists have quantified this effect for the first time using high-resolution 3D movies recorded using x-ray tomography at the Swiss Light Source.

Particles of a tin oxide electrode experiencing structural changes during charging (1-3) and discharging (3-4). (Graphic: Martin Ebner, Laboratory for Nanoelectronics, ETH Zurich)

Lithium-ion batteries are in our mobile phones, laptops, and digital cameras. Few portable electronic devices exist that do not rely on these energy sources. Currently battery electrodes contain active materials known as intercalation compounds. These materials store charge in their chemical structure without undergoing substantial structural change. That makes these batteries comparatively long-lived and safe. However, intercalation materials have one drawback: their limited energy density, the amount of energy they can store per volume and mass.

In the search for higher energy density batteries, scientists have experimented for more than 20 years with materials capable of repetitively alloying and de-alloying with lithium. Laboratory-scale experiments have shown that batteries with such materials have energy densities multiple times that of intercalation materials; however, these alloying materials are not yet exploited in industry because their lifetime is limited. Martin Ebner, Ph.D. student at the Laboratory for Nanoelectronics in the Department of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering (D-ITET) explains: “Their capacity typically fades after a couple of charging and discharging cycles.” This is attributed to a massive – up to threefold – expansion of the electrode material during charging. During discharge, the materials contract again, but do not reach their original state. Electrode particles break apart, the electrode structure disintegrates, and the fragments loose contact to the rest of the cell.
Batteries x-rayed during operation


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