Batteries don’t age gracefully. The lithium ions that power portable electronics cause lingering structural damage with each cycle of charge and discharge, making devices from smartphones to tablets tick toward zero faster and faster over time. To stop or slow this steady degradation, scientists must track and tweak the imperfect chemistry of lithium-ion batteries with nanoscale precision.
In two recent Nature Communications papers, scientists from several U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) national laboratories—Lawrence Berkeley, Brookhaven, SLAC and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory—collaborated to map these crucial billionths-of-a-meter dynamics and lay the foundation for better batteries.
“We discovered surprising and never-before-seen evolution and degradation patterns in two key battery materials,” said Huolin Xin, a materials scientist at Brookhaven Lab’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN) and co-author on both studies. “Contrary to large-scale observation, the lithium-ion reactions actually erode the materials non-uniformly, seizing upon intrinsic vulnerabilities in atomic structure in the same way that rust creeps unevenly across steel.”
Xin used electron microscopy techniques in both studies to directly visualize the nanoscale chemical transformations of battery components during each step of the charge-discharge process. In an elegant and ingenious setup, the collaborations separately explored a nickel-oxide anode and a lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide cathode—both notable for high capacity and cyclability—by placing samples inside common coin-cell batteries running under different voltages. “Armed with a precise map of the materials’ erosion, we can plan new ways to break the patterns and improve performance,” Xin said.
In these experiments, lithium ions traveled through an electrolyte solution, moving into an anode when charging and a cathode when discharging. The processes were regulated by electrons in the electrical circuit, but the ions’ journeys—and the battery structures—subtly changed each time.
Chinks in nanoarmor For the nickel-oxide anode, researchers submerged the batteries in a liquid organic electrolyte and closely controlled the charging rates. They stopped at predetermined intervals to extract and analyze the anode. Xin and his collaborators rotated 20-nm-thick sheets of the post-reaction material inside a carefully calibrated transmission electron microscope (TEM) grid at CFN to catch the contours from every angle—a process called electron tomography.
To see the way the lithium-ions reacted with the nickel oxide, the scientists used a suite of custom-written software to digitally reconstruct the three-dimensional nanostructures with single-nanometer resolution. Surprisingly, the reactions sprang up at isolated spatial points rather than sweeping evenly across the surface.
“Consider the way snowflakes only form around tiny particles or bits of dirt in the air,” Xin said. “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.”
In the experimental coin cell setup, a carbon supported transmission electron microscopy (TEM) grid loaded with a small amount of the nickel-oxide material was pressed against the bulk anode and submerged in the same electrolyte environment.
The electron microscopy provided a crucial piece of the larger puzzle assembled in concert with Berkeley Lab materials scientists and soft x-ray spectroscopy experiments conducted at SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL). The combined data covered the reactions on the nano-, meso- and microscales.
Rock-salt buildups in the other study, scientists sought the voltage sweet-spot for the high-performing lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide (NMC) cathode: How much power can be stored, at what intensity, and across how many cycles?
The answers hinged on intrinsic material qualities and the structural degradation caused by cycles at 4.7 V and 4.3 V, as measured against a lithium metal standard.
As revealed through another series of coin-cell battery tests, 4.7 V caused rapid decomposition of the electrolytes and poor cycling—the higher power comes at a price. A 4.3-V battery, however, offered a much longer cycling lifetime at the cost of lower storage and more frequent recharges.
In both cases, the chemical evolution exhibited sprawling surface asymmetries, though not without profound patterns.
“As the lithium ions race through the reaction layers, they cause clumping crystallization—a kind of rock-salt matrix builds up over time and begins limiting performance,” Xin said. “We found that these structures tended to form along the lithium-ion reaction channels, which we directly visualized under the TEM. The effect was even more pronounced at higher voltages, explaining the more rapid deterioration.”
Identifying this crystal-laden reaction pathways hints at a way forward in battery design. “It may be possible to use atomic deposition to coat the NMC cathodes with elements that resist crystallization, creating nanoscale boundaries within the micron-sized powders needed at the cutting-edge of industry,” Xin said. “In fact, Berkeley Lab battery experts Marca Doeff and Feng Lin are working on that now.”
Shirley Meng, a prof. at UC San Diego’s Dept. of NanoEngineering, added, “This beautiful study combines several complementary tools that probe both the bulk and surface of the NMC layered oxide—one of the most promising cathode materials for high-voltage operation that enables higher energy density in lithium-ion batteries. The meaningful insights provided by this study will significantly impact the optimization strategies for this type of cathode material.”
The TEM measurements revealed the atomic structures while electron energy loss spectroscopy helped pinpoint the chemical evolution—both carried out at the CFN.