Stanford scientists discover breakthrough to boost battery life for mobile devices

The creation of a "pure" lithium battery could offer double or triple the energy storage density of today's lithium-ion batteries for your laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

No matter how many breakthroughs we've seen in the past, improving battery life remains one of the biggest obstacles that mobile device makers have to deal with. While the time between recharges has grown for laptops, tablets, and smartphones over the years, too many of us have to hang close to an outlet far too frequently.

That's precisely why so much research has gone into boosting the efficiency of batteries, resulting in the type of advance that Stanford scientists are claiming they have now made. The resulting refinement of the lithium-based battery could result in double or triple the battery life of today's versions.

The researchers have published a paper in Nature Nanotechnology that describes their breakthrough. In a typical lithium-ion battery, an anode is used to provide the negative charge necessary to work with the electrolyte, which stores the positively charged ions. The anode is usually made of silicon or graphite, even though using a lithium anode offers the highest potential capacity. That's because a lithium anode creates metal deposits with each cycle, (negatively) impacting the capacity and posing a safety risk.

In other words, battery manufacturers are forced to use a suboptimal material to create today's batteries, limiting the capacity. But the Stanford scientists believe that they have found a way around the lithium anode conundrum. By coating the anode with carbon nanospheres, they saw that they could isolate the metal deposits the anode throws off, theoretically eliminating the safety issue and boosting efficiency for over 150 cycles. In comparison, an uncoated lithium anode would show decaying efficiency in fewer than 100 cycles.

If this process could be commercialized, the Stanford researchers say it could double or triple battery life for our mobile devices. That "if" depends on improving efficiency even further, as the 99 percent that the scientists could obtain would need to be improved to 99.9 percent for commercial applications.  According to one of the researchers, Yi Cui, that process could take five years, so don't toss your existing batteries just yet.