It's known that electric vehicles could travel longer distances before needing to charge and more renewable energy could be saved for a rainy day if lithium-sulfur batteries can just overcome a few technical hurdles. Now, a novel design for a critical part of the battery has been shown to significantly extend the technology's lifespan, bringing it closer to commercial use.
A "hybrid" anode developed at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory could quadruple the life of lithium-sulfur batteries.
Today's electric vehicles are commonly powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which are also being used to store renewable energy. But the chemistry of lithium-ion batteries limits how much energy they can store. One promising solution is the lithium-sulfur battery, which can hold as much as four times more energy per mass than lithium-ion batteries. This would enable electric vehicles to drive longer on a single charge and help store more renewable energy. The down side of lithium-sulfur batteries, however, is they have a much shorter lifespan because they can't be charged as many times as lithium-ion batteries.
Most batteries have two electrodes: one is positively charged and called a cathode, while the second is negative and called an anode. Electricity is generated when electrons flow through a wire that connects the two. Meanwhile, charged molecules called ions shuffle from one electrode to the other through another path: the electrolyte solution in which the electrodes sit.
The lithium-sulfur battery's main obstacles are unwanted side reactions that cut the battery's life short. The undesirable action starts on the battery's sulfur-containing cathode, which slowly disintegrates and forms molecules called polysulfides that dissolve into the battery's electrolyte liquid. The dissolved sulfur eventually develops into a thin film called the solid-state electrolyte interface layer. The film forms on the surface of the lithium-containing anode, growing until the battery is inoperable.
Most lithium-sulfur battery research to date has centered on stopping sulfur leakage from the cathode. But PNNL researchers determined stopping that leakage can be particularly challenging. Besides, recent research has shown a battery with a dissolved cathode can still work. So the PNNL team focused on the battery's other side by adding a protective shield to the anode.
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The new shield is made of graphite, a thin matrix of connected carbon molecules that is already used in lithium-ion battery anodes. In a lithium-sulfur battery, PNNL's graphite shield moves the sulfur side reactions away from the anode's lithium surface, preventing it from growing the debilitating interference layer. Combining graphite from lithium-ion batteries with lithium from conventional lithium-sulfur batteries, the researchers dubbed their new anode a hybrid of the two.
The new anode quadrupled the lifespan of the lithium-sulfur battery system the PNNL team tested. When equipped with a conventional anode, the battery stopped working after about 100 charge-and-discharge cycles. But the system worked well past 400 cycles when it used PNNL's hybrid anode and was tested under the same conditions.
"Sulfur is still dissolved in a lithium-sulfur battery that uses our hybrid anode, but that doesn't really matter," Liu said. "Tests showed a battery with a hybrid anode can successfully be charged repeatedly at a high rate for more 400 cycles, and with just an 11-percent decrease in the battery's energy storage capacity."