From Bourbon to Batteries

There is no short supply of bourbon in Kentucky. But like many products, the distillation of the state’s unofficial beverage produces a sludgy waste known as bourbon stillage. The question for one researcher from the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research was how to repurpose that waste into something with tremendous potential.

To answer that question, ECS member Stephen Lipka and his Electrochemical Power Sources group set out to transform the bourbon stillage through a process called hydrothermal carbonization, where the liquid waste gets a dose of water and heat to produce green materials.

(MORE: See more of Lipka’s work in the ECS Digital Library.)

“In Kentucky, we have this stillage that contains a lot of sugars and carbohydrates so we tried it and it works beautifully,” says Lipka. “We take these [green materials] and we then do additional post-processing to convert it into useful materials that can be used for batteries.”

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A new report by TechXplore examines a recently published review paper on the potential in nanomaterials for rechargeable lithium batteries. In the paper, lead-author and ECS member Yi Cui of Stanford University, explores the barriers that still exist in lithium rechargeables and how nanomaterials may be able to lend themselves to the development of high-capacity batteries.

When trying to design affordable batteries with high-energy densities, researchers have encountered many issues, including electrode degradation and solid-electrolyte interphase. According to the paper’s authors, possible solutions for many of these hurdles lie in nanomaterials.

Cui’s comprehensive overview of rechargeable lithium batteries and the potential of nanaomaterials in these applications came from 100 highly-reputable publications, including the following ECS published papers:

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Modified Cathode

Cathode particles treated with the carbon dioxide-based mixture show oxygen vacancies on the surface.
Image: Laboratory for Energy Storage and Conversion, UC San Diego

An international team of researchers has recently demonstrated a 30 to 40 percent increase in the energy storage capabilities of cathode materials.

The team, led by ECS member and 2016 Charles W. Tobias Young Investigator Award winner, Shirley Meng, has successfully treated lithium-rich cathode particles with a carbon dioxide-based gas mixture. This process introduced oxygen vacancies on the surface of the material, allowing for a huge boost to the amount of energy stored per unit mass and proving that oxygen plays a significant role in battery performance.

This greater understanding and improvement in the science behind the battery materials could accelerate developments in battery performance, specifically in applications such as electric vehicles.

(READ: “Gas-solid interfacial modification of oxygen activity in layered oxide cathodes for lithium-ion batteries“)

“We’ve uncovered a new mechanism at play in this class of lithium-rich cathode materials,” says Meng, past guest editor of JES Focus Issue on Intercalation Compounds for Rechargeable Batteries. “With this study, we want to open a new pathway to explore more battery materials in which we can control oxygen activity.”

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When lithium-ion pioneers M. Stanley Whittingham, Adam Heller, Michael Thackeray, and of course, John Goodenough were in the initial stages of the technology’s development in the 1970s through the late 1980s, there was no clear idea of just how monumental the lithium-based battery would come to be. Even up to a few years ago, the idea of an electric vehicle or renewable grid dependent on lithium-ion technology seemed like a pipe dream. But now, electric vehicles are making their way to the mainstream and with them comes the commercially-driven race to acquire lithium.

Just look at the rise of Tesla and success of the Nissan LEAF. Not only are these cars speaking to a real concern for environmental protection, they’re also becoming the more affordable option in transportation. For example, the LEAF goes for less than $25,000 and gets more than 80 miles per charge. Plus, electric vehicles can currently run on electricity that’s costing around $0.11 per kWh, which is roughly equivalent to $0.99 per gallon. The last year alone saw a 60 percent spike in the sale of electric vehicles.

“Electric cars are just plain better,” says James Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center and newly appointed ECS Secretary. “They’re cheaper to buy up front and they’re cheaper to operate, which years ago, was not the case.”

All things considered, lithium may just be the number one commodity of our time.

But this movement is not specific to the U.S. alone. In Germany – a country dedicated to a renewable future – there is a mandate that all new cars in the country will have to be emission-free by 2030. Similarly in Norway, the government is looking to ban gasoline-powered cars by 2025.

So with the transportation sector heading away from gasoline-powered cars and toward lithium battery-based vehicles globally, what will that do to lithium supplies?

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Hearing aid battery

One pair of ZPower hearing aid batteries can keep more than 200 disposable batteries out of the landfill.
Image: ZPower

Lithium based technologies have been dominant in the battery arena since Sony commercialized the first Li-ion battery in 1991. ECS member Jeff Ortega, however, believes that a different material holds more promise than its lithium competitor in the world of microbattery technology.

During the 229th ECS Meeting, Ortega presented work that focused on the analysis of data from commercially available rechargeable Li-ion and Li-polymer cells. He then compared the silver-zinc button cells of ZPower, where he currently serves as the company’s director of research. His results showed that the company’s silver-zinc button cells offer both greater capacity and greater density than their Li-ion and Li-polymer counterparts. Additionally, Ortega stated that the cells are also generally safer and better for the environment.

[MORE: Read Ortega’s meeting abstract.]

According to Ortega, the small silver-zinc cells have 57 percent greater energy density than both types of lithium based calls. Their potential applications including medical devices, body worn sensors, wearables, and any other microbattery application that demands long wear time. Currently, ZPower has implement these cells in hearing aid technologies.

“The ZPower Rechargeable System for Hearing Aids makes it easy to convert many new and existing hearing aids to rechargeable technology,” says Ortega in a statement. “The Rechargeable System offers a full day of power, charges overnight in the hearing aids, takes the place of an estimated 200 disposable batteries and lasts a full year. The ZPower hearing aid battery is replaced once per year by a hearing care professional, so the patient never has to touch a hearing aid battery again.”

Researchers from the University of Maryland and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory have developed a lithium-ion battery that is safer, cheaper, more powerful, and extremely environmentally friendly – all by adding a pinch of salt.

The team, led by ECS members Chunsheng Wang and Kang Xu, built on previous “water-in-salt” lithium-ion battery research – concluding that by adding a second salt to the water-based batteries, efficiency levels rise while safety risks and environmental hazards decrease.

(WATCH: Wang’s presentation at the fifth international ECS Electrochemical Energy Summit, entitled “A Single Material Battery.”)

“Our invention has the potential to transform the energy industry by replacing flammable, toxic lithium ion batteries with our safe, green water-in-salt battery,” says Wang, professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering. “This technology may increase the acceptance and improve the utility of battery-powered electric vehicles, and enable large-scale energy storage of intermittent energy generators like solar and wind.”

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While you may be unfamiliar with Khalil Amine, he has made an immense impact in your life if you happen to use batteries in any way.

As a researcher with a vision of where the science can be applied in the market, Amine has been monumental in developing and moving some of the biggest breakthroughs in battery technology from the lab to the marketplace.

Amine is currently head of the Technology Development Group in the Battery Technology Department at Argonne National Laboratory. From 1998-2008 he was the most cited scientist in the world in the field of battery technology.

He is the chair of the organizing committee for the 18th International Meeting on Lithium Batteries being held this June in Chicago.

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Up until the 1948, the lemon-lime soda 7-Up contained lithium salts, a substance most commonly known for its medical qualities used in the treatment of major depressive disorders.

While the additive has long since been removed from 7-Up, the scientists from the YouTube channel Periodic Videos thought it would be interesting to drop a piece of lithium into the current day recipe for the soda.

Initially, the results were as expected: nothing special. But after a few more seconds, the solution began transforming from its clear, bubbly state to a dark, sludgy brown. Watch as Sir Martyn Poliakoff explains the unexpected phenomena.

Advances in Sodium Batteries

With energy demands increasing every day, researchers are looking toward the next generation of energy storage technology. While society has depended on the lithium ion battery for these needs for some time, the rarity and expense of the materials needed to produce the battery is beginning to conflict with large-scale storage needs.

To combat this issue, a French team comprised of researchers primarily from CNRS and CEA is making gains in the field of electrochemical energy storage with their new development of an alternative technology for lithium ion batteries in specific sectors.

Beyond Lithium

Instead of the rare and expensive lithium, these researchers are focusing on the use of sodium ions—a more cost efficient and abundant materials. With efficiently levels comparable to that of lithium, many commercial sectors are showing an increasing interest for sodium’s potential in storing renewable energy.

While this development takes the use of sodium to a new level, the idea has been around since the 1980s. However, sodium never took off as the primary battery building material due to low energy densities and short life cycles. It was then that researchers chose to power electronics with lithium for higher efficiency levels.

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Researchers believe that as work continues in relation to this study, battery technology will accelerate forward.Image: Stony Brook University

Researchers believe that as work continues in relation to this study, battery technology will accelerate forward.
Image: Stony Brook University

A collaborative group of six researchers from Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory are using pioneering x-ray techniques to build a better and more efficient battery.

The researchers—four of whom are active ECS members, including Esther Takeuchi, Kenneth Takeuchi, Amy Marschilok, and Kevin Kirshenbaum—have recently published their internal mapping of atomic transformations of the highly conductive silver matrix formation within lithium-based batteries in the journal Science.

(PS: You can find more of these scientists’ cutting-edge research by attending the 228th ECS Meeting in Phoenix, where they will be giving presentations. Also, Esther Takeuchi will be giving a talk at this years Electrochemical Energy Summit.)

This from Stony Brook University:

In a promising lithium-based battery, the formation of a silver matrix transforms a material otherwise plagued by low conductivity. To optimize these multi-metallic batteries—and enhance the flow of electricity—scientists need a way to see where, when, and how these silver, nanoscale “bridges” emerge. In the research paper, the Stony Brook and Brookhaven Lab team successfully mapped this changing atomic architecture and revealed its link to the battery’s rate of discharge. The study shows that a slow discharge rate early in the battery’s life creates a more uniform and expansive conductive network, suggesting new design approaches and optimization techniques.

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