Tech Talk: Poor Battery Life May Be Caused By Ion Congestion

Are you frustrated with your smartphone's poor battery life and are constantly on the hunt for a power outlet to plug your pocket companion into? Are you dreaming of the day when you won't have to carry a 10,000 mAh power bank with you each time you decide to leave your house for more than a couple of hours? Well, according to latest reports, that goal is closer to being within reach thanks to Sarbajit Banerjee, a renowned chemist from Texas A&M University. Namely, Banerjee and his team of scientists have recently published their latest research in the newest edition of the Nature Communications journal in which they argue that they could potentially create significantly more efficient batteries by addressing the biggest problem of the currently existing ones. As the paper explains, that issue is a result of ions essentially becoming gridlocked, a process which occurs in modern lithium-ion batteries and inhibits both the charging and discharging.

"You expect a certain performance from a battery, and you rarely ever get there," states Banerjee, adding that each battery has a completely final lifespan given how it dies a bit each time it's used. However, while that's pretty much common knowledge, the Texas-based chemist believes that people don't understand why exactly that is. The study published in Nature Communications attempts to do precisely that. So, using the extremely powerful Scanning Transmission X-ray Microscope (STXM), Banerjee and his colleagues from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory managed to capture and record the aforementioned traffic jam of lithium ions in certain nanowire-based channels of a simulated battery. To put it more simply, electrons linked with lithium ions basically get trapped in these channels and instead of forming a constant flow of charge, they turn into disconnected "puddles of charge" because they always stop somewhere along the way of getting out of their host, i.e. powering the device. The fact that these traffic jams of ions slow down the process of discharging the battery means that devices—be it phones, tablets, laptops, or anything else—are unable to exploit their batteries to their full theoretical potential.

According to the scientists responsible for this research, the solution to this issue is designing better logic circuitry which would account for the fact that when left on its own, electrons in lithium ions move in a jerky manner and are directly responsible for the fact that these traffic jams occur. The first step in that endeavor is to develop new materials which will then be used for making better circuits that allow for a better and more consistent flow of energy. While the paper itself doesn't go into great detail regarding this possible solution, Banerjee's team still believe it to be seminal as it has managed to identify the root cause of the poor performance of lithium-ion batteries.

So, to put things more plainly, these scientists believe that the best way to build a battery that's superior to the current crop of electronic device-powering containers is to come up with a better, more efficient way of moving electrons. How does one do that? Banerjee and his team believe there are only two solutions to that challenge. One is designing new materials from which better circuitry can be manufactured, which these scientists are currently trying to accomplish. More specifically, they want to develop a material which won't contain places where electrons tend to stop moving for a while and believe they'll be successful because they've managed to identify these places while conducting this research. If that fails, the existing lithium-ion battery architectures can theoretically be designed to be smaller because—simply speaking—smaller stuff moves faster than bigger stuff. However, the team is hopeful that its first idea will bear fruit in the near future as it already has certain materials in mind and is currently in the process of trying to get research on those materials published. While we're waiting and keeping our fingers crossed for better and more efficient batteries to finally be developed, the best way to get more kick out of the existing ones is to use some of the many battery-extending apps available for Android smartphones and tablets on the Google Play Store.

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