Canada claims lithium battery breakthrough

Wednesday, 03 June, 2009

A Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)-funded lab at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, has laid the groundwork for a lithium battery that can store and deliver more than three times the power of conventional lithium-ion batteries.

The research team of professor Linda Nazar, graduate student David Xiulei Ji and postdoctoral fellow Kyu Tae Lee have demonstrated good electrochemical performance for a lithium-sulfur battery.

The prospect of lithium-sulfur batteries has tantalised chemists for two decades, and not just because successfully combining the two chemistries delivers much higher energy densities.

Sulfur is cheaper than many other materials currently used in lithium batteries. It has always shown great promise as the ideal partner for a safe, low cost, long lasting rechargeable battery, exactly the kind of battery needed for energy storage and transport.

"The difficult challenge was always the cathode, the part of the battery that stores and releases electrons in the charge and recharge cycles," said Dr. Nazar.

"To enable a reversible electrochemical reaction at high current rates, the electrically active sulfur needs to remain in the most intimate contact with a conductor, such as carbon."

The team leap-frogged the performance of other carbon-sulfur combinations by tackling the contact issue at the nanoscale level. Although they say the same approach could be used with other materials, for their proof-of-concept study they chose a member of a highly structured and porous carbon family called mesoporous carbon.

At the nanoscale level, this type of carbon has a very uniform pore diameter and volume.

Using a nanocasting method, the team assembled a structure of 6.5 nm thick carbon rods separated by empty 3–4 nanometre-wide channels.

Carbon microfibres spanning the empty channels kept the voids open and prevented collapse of the architecture.

Filling the tiny voids proved simple. Sulfur was heated and melted. Once in contact with the carbon, it was drawn or imbibed into the channels by capillary forces, where it solidified and shrank to form sulfur nanofibres.

Scanning electron microscope sections revealed that all the spaces were uniformly filled with sulfur, exposing an enormous surface area of the active element to carbon and driving the exceptional test results of the new battery.

"This composite material can supply up to nearly 80% of the theoretical capacity of sulfur, which is three times the energy density of lithium transition metal oxide cathodes, at reasonable rates with good cycling stability," said Dr Nazar.

What is more, the researchers say, the high capacity of the carbon to incorporate active material opens the door for similar 'imbibed' composites that could have applications in many areas of materials science.

The team continues to study the material to work out remaining challenges and refine the cathode's architecture and performance.

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