A research team from Rice University in Houston may have just stumbled upon a way of improving lithium-ion battery life.

While I attended the University of Houston, I have to show love to fellow Houston university Rice — especially when one of their teams accomplishes something amazing.

Our coverage first started with the AI known as Bayou that uses deep learning to write code. Now, it moves onto batteries and…nanotubes?

What is this new breakthrough and what does it mean for battery technology?

image of two lithium metal battery anodes for article Rice University Taps Carbon Nanotubes to Prevent Battery Decay
“Physical contact with lithium metal reduces the nanotube film, but balances it by adding lithium ions,” says Rodrigo Salvatierra, co-lead author of the Rice University paper. | The Tour Group

Carbon Nanotubes Help Stop Dendrite Growth

We covered the issues facing battery technology recently with a specific focus on dendrites.

While both graphene and saltwater batteries provide alternatives, finding a solution for lithium-ion battery decay may be preferred in the long term.

In a press release published on October 25th, Rice University showcased new research into just this kind of solution. As a result of research into a cost-effective solution, the team believes they solved the dendrites issue.

The method “quenches” lithium metal dendrites for faster charging and longer charges.

In the photo above, you can see two different types of lithium metal anodes. On the left, the anodes are protected by carbon nanotubes. On the right, it’s just the bare anodes with visible dendrite growth.

The thin nanotubes help to stop natural dendrite growth in unprotected lithium metal anodes found in batteries. It is these dendrites that spear electrolyte cores and damage the cathode. This, in turn, commonly causes batteries to fail.

But solving the dendrite issue required a balancing act when it came to charging speed.

After all, no one likes to have to wait for their phone battery to recharge. I have too much Candy Crush to play don’t you know!

But the solution, as the Rice team discovered, is inexpensive and highly effective.

image of carbon nanotubes protecting lithium metal battery anodes for article
A graphic showing how carbon nanotubes protect the metal anodes | The Tour Group

New Life for Lithium Batteries From Simple Carbon

Essentially, the group of Rice researchers coated lithium metal foil with some multiwalled carbon nanotube film. James Tour, chemist and Rice affiliate, spoke about how the coating helps prevent dendrite growth.

“The lithium dopes the nanotube film, which turns from black to red, and the film, in turn, diffuses the lithium ions.” Postdoctoral researcher Rodrigo Salvatierra and graduate student Gladys López-Silva echoed the simplicity of the solution.

The ions distribute themselves throughout the nanotube film.” As a result of this quenching process, dendrite growth does not occur as lithium anodes discharge.

The researchers showed a 99.8% retention rate of lithium metal cell coulombic efficiency. For those unfamiliar with the term (like me), this is how you measure how well the electrons move in an electrochemical system.

You can find the full abstract online right here.

With this breakthrough, we take another step in the journey to off-grid and sustainable energy storage. We also maintain faster charging and longer lasting charges (woo!).

In the competition for battery supremacy, will graphene, lithium, saltwater, solar, or some other source emerge victorious?

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