Chemists Accidentally Created a Battery That Could Last a Lifetime

April 26, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

UCI chemist Reginald Penner and doctoral candidate Mya Le Thai (shown) have developed a nanowire-based technology that allows lithium-ion batteries to be recharged hundreds of thousands of times.
Photo credit: Steve Zylius / UCI

Battery technology with off-the-charts charging capacity.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, have accidently invented a nanowire-based battery capable of lasting 400 times longer than some of the best-performing batteries currently on the market.

Batteries make use of lithium to carry and hold electric charge, however, there is a major downfall to lithium-ion batteries. Every time the battery gets charged and discharged, the lithium inside the battery corrodes a little bit more, causing the lithium to become brittle and crack and rendering the battery unusable after a few years.

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Scientists have long tried using nanowires instead of lithium to make batteries. Nanowires are extremely delicate wires, thousands of times thinner than a human hair, and contain ideal characteristics for use in batteries: they are highly conductible and have a large surface area that can facilitate the movement and storage of electrons. Nevertheless, these tiny filaments of nanowires are extremely fragile, so they don’t hold up well to continuous charging and discharging.

Now, UCI researchers have stumbled upon a solution by coating gold nanowires with a manganese dioxide shell and suspending it in an electrolyte Plexiglas-like gel. The new setup keeps the properties of the nanowires in place, without fracturing the wires through use.

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The study leader, UCI doctoral candidate Mya Le Thai, tested the charging capacity of the electrode nearly 200,000 times over a three month period. She found the system to be extremely resilient and resistant to failure, with none of the nanowires fracturing.

“Mya was playing around, and she coated this whole thing with a very thin gel layer and started to cycle it,” explained Reginald Penner, senior author of the study, in a press release. “She discovered that just by using this gel, she could cycle it hundreds of thousands of times without losing any capacity.”

The surprising part is that the researchers still aren’t sure exactly how their newly developed technology works. "We started to cycle the devices, and then realised that they weren't going to die," Penner told Popular Science. "We don't understand the mechanism of that yet."

Since these batteries were made using gold, they would be very expensive to purchase. So the team of researchers are already trying the same experiment using nickel instead of gold, to see whether they can generate similar results.

Regardless, Mya Le Thai expressed delight with her surprise discovery. In a statement, she said, “This research proves that a nanowire-based battery electrode can have a long lifetime and that we can make these kinds of batteries a reality.”

We look forward to seeing what further investigation might bring to the field of nanowire technology. Who knows, maybe we will soon have a nanowire battery with real-world applications, capable of lasting a lifetime.

The findings were published yesterday (April 25) in the American Chemical Society’s Energy Letters.

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