Stopping polysulfide shuttling in lithium–sulfur batteries

Friday, 02 July, 2021

Stopping polysulfide shuttling in lithium–sulfur batteries

As our society and transportation systems become increasingly electrified, scientists worldwide are seeking more efficient and higher capacity storage systems. Researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), led by PhD student Eman Alhajji, have made a significant contribution by modifying lithium–sulfur (Li–S) batteries to suppress a problem known as polysulfide shuttling.

Li–S batteries have several potential advantages over the most commonly used types of batteries. They have a higher theoretical energy storage capacity and sulfur is a non-toxic element readily available in nature. Sulfur is also a waste product of the petrochemical industry, so it could be obtained relatively cheaply while increasing the sustainability of another industry.

Polysulfide shuttling involves the movement of sulfur-containing intermediates between the cathode and anode during the battery’s chemical processes. This seriously degrades the capacity and recharging ability of the Li–S battery technologies that have been explored to date.

The KAUST team’s solution is based on a layer of graphene. They make this by subjecting a polyimide polymer to laser energy in a process called laser scribing, creating a suitably structured porous material. A key feature is that the material is hierarchically porous in three dimensions, meaning it has an array of pores of different sizes. Nano-sized carbon particles are then added and taken up by the pores to form the final product.

Alhajji and her colleagues found that placing a thin layer of this material between the cathode and anode of an Li–S battery significantly suppresses the polysulfide shuttling. The key was to make the freestanding interlayer just a few micrometres thick, which Alhajji admitted was a challenge.

“It was fun to roll it like Play-Doh, but then I had to handle it in a very gentle manner, especially during battery assembly,” she said.

Stopping the sulfur shuttle for better batteries from Michael on Vimeo. Video ©2021 KAUST; Anastasia Serin.

Until now, most options proposed to solve the polysulfide shuttling problem have suffered from limitations that make them unsuitable for large-scale commercial application. In contrast, the laser-scribed graphene developed at KAUST is produced by a method that the researchers describe as “scalable and straightforward”.

Alhajji won a 2021 Materials Research Society Best Poster Award based on her idea for suppressing the shuttling, while the results of the study have been published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Image caption: Incorporating a layer of hierarchically porous graphene into lithium–sulfur batteries helps to overcome one of the major limitations of these types of batteries. Image ©2021 KAUST; Anastasia Serin.

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