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Nanotechnology gives a boost to next-generation batteries

Non-aqueous lithium–oxygen (Li–O2) batteries could store energy at densities rivaling gasoline. Commercializing this emerging technology, however, will require breakthroughs that will allow the batteries to be recharged efficiently. Hye Ryung Byon and Eda Yilmaz at the RIKEN Byon Initiative Research Unit have taken a major stride toward this goal by significantly enhancing the recharge efficiency of Li–O2 batteries through judicious application of catalytic ruthenium oxide (RuO2) nanoparticles.

Li–O2 batteries eliminate the heavy metal oxide cathodes used in conventional lithium-ion batteries to let lithium react directly with atmospheric oxygen on cathodes made from light, porous materials such as carbon nanotubes. When the battery discharges, lithium ions and oxygen gas react to form lithium peroxide (Li2O2) crystals on the cathode. To recharge the battery, the insulating Li2O2 crystals must be decomposed—a reaction that requires significant recharge potentials, which can shorten battery life.

Byon and Yilmaz tried to improve the battery recharge efficiency by adding RuO2nanoparticles to the carbon nanotube cathodes. “RuO2 has an optimal surface energy for oxygen adsorption and is a good catalyst for oxidation reactions,” explains Yilmaz. However, because most ruthenium-based catalyses are performed in aqueous solutions, the team had to tread carefully to understand what would happen when RuO2 was surrounded by solid Li2O2.
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