Fooling around with nanowires, a UCI scientist finds recipe for lifelong batteries

What usually happens when someone goofs off at work? For most people this typically means missing a deadline or (at the very least) upsetting your boss who has to tell you, yet again, to get back to work. However, if they happened to be a researcher at the University of California, Irvine, messing around at work could mean stumbling across a revolutionary new finding. Just this week, a team of scientists at UCI reportedly found a way to make lithium-ion batteries stay effective after hundreds of thousands of recharges — aka an eternity. How’d they do it? By horsing around at work, of course.

At a lab on the UCI campus earlier this year, university doctoral candidate Mya Le Thai playfully coated an entire gold nanowire with a manganese dioxide shell and covered its assembly with and electrolyte gel the college describes as “Plexiglas-like.” Not only did this unique mixture show incredible resilience and durability, but it allowed the team to dramatically strengthen the filaments found in lithium-ion batteries. Typically fragile (they are thinner than human hair, after all), nanowires tend to fail after being repeatedly cycled — i.e., discharged and recharged.

“Mya was playing around, and she coated this whole thing with a very thin gel layer and started to cycle it,” said Reginald Penner, chair of UCI’s chemistry department. “She discovered that just by using this gel, she could cycle it hundreds of thousands of times without losing any capacity.”

Penner continued by calling Thai’s finding “crazy,” adding that typical cycling tests of lithium-ion batteries tend to fail around roughly 5,000 to 6,000 tests. And how many times did Thai cycle it, you ask? Try 200,000 times over three months without even the slightest drop in power or capacity. Moreover, the nanowires showed no signs of stress or fractures despite the incredibly high number of tests.

“The coated electrode holds its shape much better, making it a more reliable option,” Thai says. “This research proves that a nanowire-based battery electrode can have a long lifetime and that we can make these kinds of batteries a reality.”

Thai’s discovery could likely pave the way for longer-lasting batteries in automobiles, smartphones, home appliances, computers, and even spacecraft. While the batteries used in literally everything eventually die, UCI’s innovative gel electrolyte-boosted lithium-ion batteries could last an entire lifetime. It’s unknown how much further testing of the batteries is needed before it could make a commercial debut, however, the findings were published in The American Chemical Society’s Energy Letters this week. Additionally, the study was conducted in conjunction with nanostructure researchers at the University of Maryland.

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