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Scientists Now Know Why Lithium-Ion Batteries Degrade, Can Begin Working On a Fix

May 29, 2014 - Written By Jeremiah Nelson

Battery life continues to be an issue on our mobile devices. Since the advent of lithium-ion batteries there hasn’t been a major breakthrough in battery technology. Manufacturers have combated this with bigger batteries as screen sizes have increased. They also optimize the heck out of the software to increase batter life, and they do a pretty good job. But it’s never enough for our increasing power needs. There’s hope, though.

Researches at Lawrence Berkeley, Stanford, and Brookhaven have figured out exactly why lithium-ion batteries degrade over time the way they do. They have uncovered a pattern of erosion that happens on the cathode and anode ends of the battery. This erosion causes the battery to degrade a little bit each time it’s charged and discharged. The more the battery takes and sends its charge, the greater the erosion and the less charge the battery can hold. We’ve all experienced this in a battery at one time or another. After about two years, a cell phone battery just can’t hold a charge anymore. “Consider the way snowflakes only form around tiny particles or bits of dirt in the air,” says Huolin Xin, a scientist at Brookhaven. “Without an irregularity to glom onto, the crystals cannot take shape. Our nickel oxide anode only transforms into metallic nickel through nanoscale inhomogeneities or defects in the surface structure, a bit like chinks in the anode’s armor.”

The great news is that researchers already think they can fix it. Because they now understand how the erosion works, they have begun experimenting with ways to slow or even halt the breakdown of the battery cells. Researchers at Berkeley have already come up with a powder that works to reverse the small imperfections that form on the anodes over time. This will improve battery life, but it’s still in the early stages. There are no solutions yet, but it’s encouraging when there’s any kind of a breakthrough in this seemingly stagnant arena. Even though it takes a few years for this type of technological breakthrough to make its way out of the laboratory and into our electronic devices, at least we know that a brighter, longer lasting future is in front of us.