When it comes to modern consumer electronics, we all seem to be obsessed with finding an electrical outlet to charge up. That’s because the lithium-ion batteries that power our smartphones, laptops, and other gadgets have a performance problem: with each charge, they become less efficient, eventually becoming too unstable to function.

Now chemists from Texas A&M have uncovered what causes batteries to slowly die: instead of flowing freely, electrons coupled to lithium ions are getting trapped, creating disconnected “puddles of charge” that only increase over time.

“You can always draw an analogy between water and electrons,” said Professor Sarbajit Banerjee, the lead author of the Nature Communications paper. “They are making these little puddles, but until the puddles are connected, they can’t flow. Once you have enough electrons coming in, they can all link up and start flowing.”

The researchers were even able to pinpoint where the electron traps are occurring in the nanowires and how this phenomenon affects performance.

But the big question is, how will they build a better battery?

Banerjee points to two emerging fields to solve the problem. The first is nanotech, that is, designing smaller, improved architectures that allow for faster uptake and release of lithium ions than today’s batteries. The second approach, which Banerjee and team are pursuing, is advanced materials. By discovering new materials that design away the traps, the electrons will be de-localized and able to flow freely.

Lithium-ion batteries have been on the market for around 40 years, yet they are in demand now more than ever. As manufacturers seek to pack even more computing power into devices, all eyes are on battery technology for the next big breakthrough to enable technologies from wireless charging to the Internet of Things.

Read more about this study over at Phys.org.


Image credit: Shutterstock

I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

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