Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have designed and tested an all-solid lithium-sulfur battery with approximately four times the energy density of conventional lithium-ion technologies that power today’s electronics.

That would be four times the energy or power at the same weight.

Chengdu Liang, lead author on the ORNL study said, “Our approach is a complete change from the current battery concept of two electrodes joined by a liquid electrolyte, which has been used over the last 150 to 200 years.”

Chengdu Liang With Sample of Lithium Sulfur Battery Material. Click image for the largest view.

Chengdu Liang With Sample of Lithium Sulfur Battery Material. Click image for the largest view.

The results seem near miraculous.  The research battery has no liquid and is rechargeable.  The working group’s paper, Lithium Polysulfidophosphates: A Family of Lithium-Conducting Sulfur-Rich Compounds for Lithium-Sulfur Batteries, published this week in Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

Scientists have been excited about the potential of lithium-sulfur batteries for decades, but long-lasting, large-scale versions for commercial applications have proven elusive. Researchers were stuck with a catch-22 created by the battery’s use of liquid electrolytes: On one hand, the liquid helped conduct ions through the battery by allowing lithium polysulfide compounds to dissolve. The downside, however, was that the same dissolution process caused the battery to prematurely break down.

The ORNL team overcame these barriers by first synthesizing a never-before-seen class of sulfur-rich materials that conduct ions as well as the lithium metal oxides conventionally used in the battery’s cathode. Liang’s team then combined the new sulfur-rich cathode and a lithium anode with a solid electrolyte material, also developed at ORNL, to create an energy-dense, all-solid battery.

Liang explains the practical results with, “This game-changing shift from liquid to solid electrolytes eliminates the problem of sulfur dissolution and enables us to deliver on the promise of lithium-sulfur batteries. Our battery design has real potential to reduce cost, increase energy density and improve safety compared with existing lithium-ion technologies.”

The new ionically-conductive cathode enables the ORNL battery to maintain a capacity of 1200 milliamp-hours (mAh) per gram after 300 charge-discharge cycles at 60º Celsius. For comparison, a traditional lithium-ion battery cathode has an average capacity between 140-170 mAh/g. Because lithium-sulfur batteries deliver about half the voltage of lithium-ion versions, this eight-fold increase in capacity demonstrated in the ORNL battery cathode translates into four times the gravimetric energy density of lithium-ion technologies, explained Liang.

The team’s all-solid design also increases battery safety by eliminating flammable liquid electrolytes that can react with lithium metal. Chief among the ORNL battery’s other advantages is its use of elemental sulfur, a plentiful industrial byproduct of petroleum processing.

“Sulfur is practically free,” Liang said. “Not only does sulfur store much more energy than the transition metal compounds used in lithium-ion battery cathodes, but a lithium-sulfur device could help recycle a waste product into a useful technology.”

Although the team’s new battery is still in the demonstration stage, Liang and his colleagues hope to see their research move quickly from the laboratory into commercial applications. A patent on the team’s design is pending.

Liang explained the thinking behind the success with, “This project represents a synergy between basic science and applied research. We used fundamental research to understand a scientific phenomenon, identified the problem and then created the right material to solve that problem, which led to the success of a device with real-world applications.”

Modern technology is a wondrous thing when paired up to innovative thinking.  The synthesis and characterization was conducted at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences at ORNL.

Now to see if the tech will scale up commercially.  The idea of twice the energy at half the weight for cell phones, laptops and even electric vehicles is a very enticing technology even though needing more cells constructed to get to the needed voltage.  Liang is about right.  Sulfur is piling up by the hill where the heavier crude oil is produced.  For all the market progress of Lithium-ion batteries the price of lithium hasn’t shot out of reach.

Maybe the Electric Vehicle market isn’t such a huge risk after all.


3 Comments so far

  1. Andy on June 7, 2013 3:13 AM

    Could be the game changer for EV’s.

  2. Dave Mart on June 7, 2013 5:35 AM

    “The cathode shows an initial discharge capacity of 1272 mAh/g (based on the incorporated sulfur content) or 599 mAh/g (based on the compound ; Figure 3 a).” In the Li-S research world, it’s common practice to
    normalize cathode capacity according to the active cathode mass and ignore the inactive mass. However, to calculate total cell energy
    density, one must consider the entire electrode mass, including both the active and inactive mass. Perhaps the inactive mass in Li-S cathodes
    can be reduced over time, but today, Li-S cathodes have a much higher inactive mass (~50%) than Li-ion cathodes (~15%).’

    In the wonderful world of battery breakthroughs all is not always as it looks on the face of it.

  3. Matt Musson on June 7, 2013 7:37 AM

    We need a game changing battery for EV’s to ever be practical. But, the battery he is holding in the photo is certainly not going to move a car. Hopefully, it scales up economically and is not just another radically new cell phone battery.

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