Tech puts the brakes on Li-ion batteries to stop fires

Thursday, 17 November, 2022

Tech puts the brakes on Li-ion batteries to stop fires

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries can be used to power everything from smart watches to electric vehicles, due to the large amounts of energy they can store. However, when overheated, they can catch fire or even explode. Research published in ACS’s Nano Letters has offered a possible solution, with new technology that can shut down a Li-ion battery when it gets too hot.

The chemistry found in many batteries is essentially the same: electrons are shuttled through an electronic device in a circuit from one electrode in the battery to another. But in a Li-ion cell, the electrolyte liquid that separates these electrodes can evaporate when it overheats, causing a short circuit. In certain cases, short circuiting can lead to thermal runaway, a process in which a cell heats itself uncontrollably. When multiple Li-ion cells are chained together — such as in electric vehicles — thermal runaway can spread from one unit to the next, resulting in a large, hard-to-fight fire. To prevent this, some batteries now have fail-safe features, such as external vents, temperature sensors or flame-retardant electrolytes. But these measures can either kick in too late or harm performance. So, researchers have created a Li-ion battery that can shut itself down quickly, while working just as well as existing technologies.

Yapei Wang, Kai Liu and colleagues used a thermally responsive shape memory polymer covered with a conductive copper spray to create a material that would transmit electrons most of the time, but switch to being an insulator when heated excessively. At around 197°F (91.6°C), a microscopic, 3D pattern programmed into the polymer appeared, breaking apart the copper layer and stopping the flow of operations. This permanently shut down the cell but prevented a potential fire. At this temperature, however, traditional cells kept running, putting them at risk of thermal runaway if they became hot again. Under regular operating temperatures, the battery with the new polymer maintained a high conductivity, low resistivity and similar cycling lifetime to a traditional battery cell. The researchers believe this technology could make Li-ion batteries safer without having to sacrifice their performance.

The study received funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Tsinghua University–China Petrochemical Corporation Joint Institute for Green Chemical Engineering and the Tsinghua-Foshan Innovation Special Fund.

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