Researchers from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Rochester have developed a new technology that will prevent lithium-ion batteries from combusting due to damage. Inside lithium-ion batteries, a thin plastic layer separates the two electrodes, and it could be easily damaged by impact or improper packaging. Once the protective plastic layer fails, the two electrodes may come in contact with each other, which causes the batteries' liquid electrolyte to combust. To resolve this problem, researchers led by Dr. Gabriel Veith mixed fine spherical particles of silica with the liquid electrolyte. The silica additive allows the electrolyte to solidify upon impact, which prevents the electrodes from touching and reduces the risk of battery explosions. Other research groups have previously attempted to mix silica with liquid electrolytes, but unlike Dr. Veith's team, these scientists opted to include silica particles that have either irregular shapes or rod-like appearance. However, Dr. Veith claims that spherical silica particles are easier to make and respond faster compared to other shapes of silica particles.
Moreover, the use of silica additives allows companies to produce safer lithium-ion batteries without the need to drastically change their manufacturing process. More specifically, manufacturers only need to place the silica particles inside the battery before injecting the electrolyte. In contrast, using solid electrolytes, which also aims to prevent electrodes from touching upon impact, requires significant and possibly costly modification to the way batteries are produced. Researchers expect that this battery technology will be first used in drones, although it could possibly end up in other devices in the near future.
However, other institutions are already developing batteries that utilize different materials for electrodes and electrolytes. For example, researchers from the University of Maryland, in collaboration with the US Army Research Laboratory and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, have designed a battery that uses metallic zinc for the anode and a water-based solution of dissolved salts for electrolytes. This battery type could later be used as a safer alternative to lithium-ion batteries, which, aside from the possibility of combustion, is also relatively prone to corrosive leakage. Aside from consumer electronics, researchers expect that this battery type could also be used in mission-critical use cases.