A specially designed polymer will repair tiny cracks that wear batteries down over time

Degradation of the electrodes in batteries causes them to lose capacity after every charge cycle. A new approach makes those components self-healing and more durable.

Scientists at Stanford and a U.S. government laboratory may have found a way to make batteries that work consistently well and don’t degrade over the long term.

Longevity is a problem for the kinds of lithium-ion batteries that power devices, cars and some aircraft components, because cathodes, the negatively charged component that current flows from, will break down after repeated charge cycles. That problem has worsened as batteries have been designed for higher capacities; electrodes wear out and lose efficiency from the very first time they are recharged.

An article published in the latest issue of the journal Nature outlines how Stanford and the U.S. Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory designed a prototype self-healing battery. That was achieved by applying a conductive, flexible polymer to the cathode to protect it from wear. The prototype lasted 10x longer than conventional batteries, because damage was automatically repaired.

"Their capacity for storing energy is in the practical range now, but we would certainly like to push that," Yi Cui, an associate professor at SLAC and Stanford who led the project team, said in a press release. “The electrodes worked for about 100 charge-discharge cycles without significantly losing their energy storage capacity.”

Ultimately, the researchers’ goal is to reach 500 cycles for cell phones and 3,000 cycles for electric vehicles. That’s means your smart phone’s battery would retain its optimal charging capacity for nearly a year and a half – nearly its entire lifecycle if you wish to upgrade every two years. It would be a remarkable improvement.

How rapidly batteries can charge and how far a charge goes are also characteristics of today’s technology that require similar breakthroughs. Last April, a team of scientists from the University of Illinois, Urbana created lithium-ion batteries that can potentially run for several days with the ability to charge instantaneously.

Both approaches would need to be commercially viably to actually reach the market.

(image credit: Brad Plummer / SLAC)

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