'Bulletproof' battery: Kevlar membrane for safer, thinner lithium rechargeables

January 27, 2015, University of Michigan

New battery technology from the University of Michigan should be able to prevent the kind of fires that grounded Boeing 787 Dreamliners in 2013.

The innovation is an advanced barrier between the electrodes in a lithium-ion battery.

Made with nanofibers extracted from Kevlar, the tough material in bulletproof vests, the barrier stifles the growth of metal tendrils that can become unwanted pathways for electrical current.

A U-M team of researchers also founded Ann Arbor-based Elegus Technologies to bring this research from the lab to market. Mass production is expected to begin in the fourth quarter 2016.

"Unlike other ultra strong materials such as carbon nanotubes, Kevlar is an insulator," said Nicholas Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Engineering. "This property is perfect for separators that need to prevent shorting between two electrodes."

Lithium-ion batteries work by shuttling lithium ions from one electrode to the other. This creates a charge imbalance, and since electrons can't go through the between the electrodes, they go through a circuit instead and do something useful on the way.

But if the holes in the membrane are too big, the lithium atoms can build themselves into fern-like structures, called dendrites, which eventually poke through the membrane. If they reach the other electrode, the electrons have a path within the battery, shorting out the circuit. This is how the battery fires on the Boeing 787 are thought to have started.

"The fern shape is particularly difficult to stop because of its nanoscale tip," said Siu On Tung, a graduate student in Kotov's lab, as well as at Elegus. "It was very important that the fibers formed smaller pores than the tip size."

While the widths of pores in other membranes are a few hundred nanometers, or a few hundred-thousandths of a centimeter, the pores in the membrane developed at U-M are 15-to-20 nanometers across. They are large enough to let individual lithium ions pass, but small enough to block the 20-to-50-nanometer tips of the fern-structures.

The researchers made the membrane by layering the fibers on top of each other in thin sheets. This method keeps the chain-like molecules in the plastic stretched out, which is important for good conductivity between the , Tung said.

"The special feature of this material is we can make it very thin, so we can get more energy into the same battery cell size, or we can shrink the cell size," said Dan VanderLey, an engineer who helped found Elegus through U-M's Master of Entrepreneurship program. "We've seen a lot of interest from people looking to make thinner products."

Thirty companies have requested samples of the material.

Kevlar's heat resistance could also lead to safer batteries as the membrane stands a better chance of surviving a fire than most membranes currently in use.

While the team is satisfied with the membrane's ability to block the lithium dendrites, they are currently looking for ways to improve the flow of loose lithium ions so that batteries can charge and release their energy more quickly.

The study, "A dendrite-suppressing solid ion conductor from aramid nanofibers," will appear online Jan. 27 in Nature Communications.

Explore further: Research aims to improve lithium-based batteries

Related Stories

Research aims to improve lithium-based batteries

January 22, 2015

Research probing the complex science behind the formation of "dendrites" that cause lithium-ion batteries to fail could bring safer, longer-lasting batteries capable of being charged within minutes instead of hours.

Toward nano-powered cars

January 14, 2015

How can electric cars increase their driving range before they need to stop and recharge? Traditional batteries cannot keep up with the high storage demand but the complete redesign of lithium ion batteries open up new possibilities

Recommended for you

Atomic-scale ping-pong

June 20, 2018

New experiments by researchers at the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester have shed more light on the gas flow through tiny, angstrom-sized channels with atomically flat walls.

Chameleon-inspired nanolaser changes colors

June 20, 2018

As a chameleon shifts its color from turquoise to pink to orange to green, nature's design principles are at play. Complex nano-mechanics are quietly and effortlessly working to camouflage the lizard's skin to match its environment.

Method could help boost large scale production of graphene

June 19, 2018

The measure by which any conductor is judged is how easily, and speedily, electrons can move through it. On this point, graphene is one of the most promising materials for a breathtaking array of applications. However, its ...

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.