Quantum dots made from fool's gold boost battery performance

November 11, 2015
Vanderbilt graduate student Anna Douglas holding one of the batteries that she has modified by adding millions of quantum dots made from iron pyrite, fool's gold. Credit: John Russell, Vanderbilt University

If you add quantum dots - nanocrystals 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair - to a smartphone battery it will charge in 30 seconds, but the effect only lasts for a few recharge cycles.

However, a group of researchers at Vanderbilt University report in the Nov. 11 issue of the journal ACS Nano that they have found a way to overcome this problem: Making the quantum dots out of , commonly known as fool's gold, can produce batteries that charge quickly and work for dozens of cycles.

The research team headed by Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Cary Pint and led by graduate student Anna Douglas became interested in iron pyrite because it is one of the most abundant materials in the earth's surface. It is produced in raw form as a byproduct of coal production and is so cheap that it is used in that are bought in the store and thrown away after a single use.

Despite all their promise, researchers have had trouble getting nanoparticles to improve battery performance.

"Researchers have demonstrated that nanoscale materials can significantly improve batteries, but there is a limit," Pint said. "When the particles get very small, generally meaning below 10 nanometers (40 to 50 atoms wide), the nanoparticles begin to chemically react with the electrolytes and so can only charge and discharge a few times. So this size regime is forbidden In commercial lithium-ion batteries."

A transmission electron microscope image of a single iron pyrite quantum dot on the left and a graph that shows the size distribution of the fool's gold quantum dots that they added to standard lithium batteries. Credit: Pint Lab, Vanderbilt University

Aided by Douglas' expertise in synthesizing nanoparticles, the team set out to explore this "ultrasmall" regime. They did so by adding millions of iron pyrite of different sizes to standard lithium button batteries like those that are used to power watches, automobile key remotes and LED flashlights. They got the most bang for their buck when they added ultrasmall nanocrystals that were about 4.5 nanometers in size. These substantially improved both the batteries' cycling and rate capabilities.

The researchers discovered that they got this result because iron pyrite has a unique way of changing form into an iron and a lithium-sulfur (or sodium sulfur) compound to store energy. "This is a different mechanism from how commercial lithium-ion batteries store charge, where lithium inserts into a material during charging and is extracted while discharging - all the while leaving the material that stores the lithium mostly unchanged," Douglas explained.

According to Pint, "You can think of it like vanilla cake. Storing lithium or sodium in conventional battery materials is like pushing chocolate chips into the cake and then pulling the intact chips back out. With the interesting materials we're studying, you put chocolate chips into vanilla cake and it changes into a chocolate cake with vanilla chips."

As a result, the rules that forbid the use of ultrasmall nanoparticles in batteries no longer apply. In fact, the scales are tipped in favor of very small nanoparticles.

"Instead of just inserting lithium or sodium ions in or out of the nanoparticles, storage in iron pyrite requires the diffusion of iron atoms as well. Unfortunately, iron diffuses slowly, requiring that the size be smaller than the iron diffusion length - something that is only possible with ultrasmall nanoparticles," Douglas explained.

A key observation of the team's study was that these ultrasmall nanoparticles are equipped with dimensions that allow the iron to move to the surface while the sodium or lithium reacts with the sulfurs in the iron pyrite. They demonstrated that this isn't the case for larger particles, where the inability of the iron to move through the iron pyrite materials limits their storage capability.

Pint believes that understanding of chemical storage mechanisms and how they depend on nanoscale dimensions is critical to enable the evolution of at a pace that stands up to Moore's law and can support the transition to electric vehicles.

"The batteries of tomorrow that can charge in seconds and discharge in days will not just use nanotechnology, they will benefit from the development of new tools that will allow us to design nanostructures that can stand up to tens of thousands of cycles and possess energy storage capacities rivaling that of gasoline," said Pint. "Our research is a major step in this direction."

Explore further: Battery electrode's 40,000 charge cycles look promising for grid storage

Related Stories

Inexpensive material boosts battery capacity

October 23, 2013

Battery-powered cars offer many environmental benefits, but a car with a full tank of gasoline can travel further. By improving the energy capacity of lithium-ion batteries, a new electrode made from iron oxide nanoparticles ...

New low-cost battery could help store renewable energy

November 4, 2015

Wind and solar energy projects are growing at a respectable clip. But storing electric power for days when the air is still or when the sun goes down remains a challenge, largely due to cost. Now researchers are developing ...

Recommended for you

Graphene under pressure

August 25, 2016

Small balloons made from one-atom-thick material graphene can withstand enormous pressures, much higher than those at the bottom of the deepest ocean, scientists at the University of Manchester report.

Designing ultrasound tools with Lego-like proteins

August 25, 2016

Ultrasound imaging is used around the world to help visualize developing babies and diagnose disease. Sound waves bounce off the tissues, revealing their different densities and shapes. The next step in ultrasound technology ...

Nanovesicles in predictable shapes

August 25, 2016

Beads, disks, bowls and rods: scientists at Radboud University have demonstrated the first methodological approach to control the shapes of nanovesicles. This opens doors for the use of nanovesicles in biomedical applications, ...

'Artificial atom' created in graphene

August 22, 2016

In a tiny quantum prison, electrons behave quite differently as compared to their counterparts in free space. They can only occupy discrete energy levels, much like the electrons in an atom - for this reason, such electron ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.