lithium ion microscope technology

“YEAH, SCIENCE!”, without the “bitch”, is what one Jesse Pinkman would say if he were reading the news about the latest breakthrough in battery technology, but thankfully I’m not Jesse and I’m not cooking any meth today. What is cooking, though, is the brain of every electrical engineer around the world, as new microscopic imaging technology has finally revealed the secrets of the Lithium-Ion battery. For the first time, we’re able to look into these things and see how they function on a molecular level, paving the way for making them safer to use and longer-lasting.

That picture is just… absolutely fascinating.  Its taken with an operand electromechanical stage paired to an electron microscope, a completely new device created by the Department of Energy’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) in the United States. What this do-hickey does is provide a magnified, nanoscale view of what happens to a lithium ion battery internally as it cycles energy and dissipates it as electricity.

These images are sized to the nanoscale, so exhibit A is a picture of a platinum anode inside electrolyte fluid at one nanometer (1nm), with exhibits B and C at two nanometers. For scale, the width of a human hair ranges from 30 nanometers all the way to 100 nanometers. 

The results of the JCESR’s first experiments are interesting. What you see is the anode reacting to chemicals in the electrolyte, releasing tiny, microscopic dendrites that are created from lithium-ion atoms bundling themselves together into thorn-like structures. While the process of creating the dendrites is completely natural and expected, we’ve never seen them actually take form. Dendrites are small and sharp enough to pierce holes into the insulating layers between the many electrodes in a single cell. If they do, it would eventually leading to the battery short-circuiting itself, or worse, exploding while in your pocket.

While dendrites can be prevented from ever forming, it usually results in batteries being very small, not able to hold much charge, and useless if you deplete them to below recommended levels. Being able to see and study their formation and creation now with this machine means that future batteries will be better designed to deal with possible dendrite spikes, and we might see the day when a year goes by without someone’s leg getting mauled by a faulty, exploding iPhone battery. We might also see improvements in future battery designs that extend battery life even further, as we can now track how much time passes before a particular anode and electrolyte solution produces dendrites.

Those engineers in Tesla’s Research Division must be peeing in their pants with delight now.