Researchers at MIT just made an amazing discovery in the quest for smaller, safer lithium batteries
· Nov 25, 2022 ·

So much time is spent discussing fossil fuels, electricity generation and renewable energy power grids that we can easily forget how much of the world runs on batteries — and how important it is to keep improving and building upon that technology:

A discovery by MIT researchers could finally unlock the door to the design of a new kind of rechargeable lithium battery that is more lightweight, compact, and safe than current versions, and that has been pursued by labs around the world for years.

The key to this potential leap in battery technology is replacing the liquid electrolyte that sits between the positive and negative electrodes with a much thinner, lighter layer of solid ceramic material, and replacing one of the electrodes with solid lithium metal. This would greatly reduce the overall size and weight of the battery and remove the safety risk associated with liquid electrolytes, which are flammable. But that quest has been beset with one big problem: dendrites.

Dendrites, whose name comes from the Latin for branches, are projections of metal that can build up on the lithium surface and penetrate into the solid electrolyte, eventually crossing from one electrode to the other and shorting out the battery cell. Researchers haven't been able to agree on what gives rise to these metal filaments, nor has there been much progress on how to prevent them and thus make lightweight solid-state batteries a practical option.

The new research, being published today in the journal Joule in a paper by MIT Professor Yet-Ming Chiang, graduate student Cole Fincher, and five others at MIT and Brown University, seems to resolve the question of what causes dendrite formation. It also shows how dendrites can be prevented from crossing through the electrolyte.

Now, I'm not going to pretend to understand all of this. And thankfully, we don't have to! We just know that the best batteries are those that are well-designed by people who know what they're doing.

What this development really underscores is just how critical is the endless refinement and redevelopment of existing energy technologies — the batteries, the oil refining, the solar collecting, the wind farming, the bio-electric generating, whatever. We need to be pursuing the best versions of all of these technologies, all the time.

Cheers to the fine folks at MIT for making our batteries better!

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