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Solid-state battery study ‘could unlock game-changing tech for EVs and aviation’

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X-ray computed tomography images show the progressive growth of a lithium dendrite crack within a solid-state battery during the charging process (Credit: Dominic Melvin, Nature, 2023)
X-ray computed tomography images show the progressive growth of a lithium dendrite crack within a solid-state battery during the charging process (Credit: Dominic Melvin, Nature, 2023)

“Significantly improved” batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) and even aviation could be a step closer thanks to a new study, according to researchers at the University of Oxford.

The study used advanced imaging techniques to reveal the mechanisms that cause lithium metal solid-state batteries (Li-SSBs) to fail. “If these can be overcome, solid-state batteries using lithium metal anodes could deliver a step-change improvement in EV battery range, safety and performance, and help advance electrically powered aviation,” the research announcement said.

Li-SSBs are distinct from conventional batteries because they replace the flammable liquid electrolyte with a solid electrolyte and use lithium metal as the anode (negative electrode). The use of the solid electrolyte improves the safety, and the use of lithium metal means more energy can be stored.

One of the co-lead authors of the study, Dominic Melvin, a PhD student in Oxford’s Department of Materials, said: “Progressing solid-state batteries with lithium metal anodes is one of the most important challenges facing the advancement of battery technologies. While lithium-ion batteries of today will continue to improve, research into solid-state batteries has the potential to be high-reward and a gamechanger technology.”

A critical challenge with Li-SSBs, however, is that they are prone to short circuit when charging due to the growth of dendrites, filaments of lithium metal that crack through the ceramic electrolyte.

In the latest study, part of the Faraday Institution’s Solbat project, the group used an advanced imaging technique called X-ray computed tomography at the Diamond Light Source in Didcot, Oxfordshire, to visualise dendrite failure in ‘unprecedented’ detail during the charging process.

The imaging revealed that the initiation and propagation of the dendrite cracks are separate processes, driven by distinct underlying mechanisms. Dendrite cracks initiate when lithium accumulates in sub-surface pores. When the pores become full, further charging of the battery increases the pressure, leading to cracking.

Propagation, on the other hand, occurs with lithium only partially filling the crack, through a ‘wedge-opening mechanism’ that drives the crack open from the rear.

This new understanding points the way forward to overcoming the technological challenges of Li-SSBs, the researchers said. “For instance, while pressure at the lithium anode can be good to avoid gaps developing at the interface with the solid electrolyte on discharge, our results demonstrate that too much pressure can be detrimental, making dendrite propagation and short-circuit on charging more likely,” Melvin said.

Sir Peter Bruce, professor of materials at the University of Oxford, chief scientist at the Faraday Institution, and corresponding author of the study, said: “The process by which a soft metal such as lithium can penetrate a highly dense hard ceramic electrolyte has proved challenging to understand, with many important contributions by excellent scientists around the world. We hope the additional insights we have gained will help the progress of solid-state battery research towards a practical device.”

According to a recent report by the Faraday Institution, SSBs could satisfy 50% of global demand for batteries in consumer electronics, 30% in transportation, and over 10% in aircraft by 2040.

Professor Pam Thomas, CEO of the Faraday Institution, said: “Solbat researchers continue to develop a mechanistic understanding of solid-state battery failure – one hurdle that needs to be overcome before high-power batteries with commercially relevant performance could be realised for automotive applications.

“The project is informing strategies that cell manufacturers might use to avoid cell failure for this technology. This application-inspired research is a prime example of the type of scientific advances that the Faraday Institution was set up to drive.”

The work was published in Nature.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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