The University of Michigan Chemical Sciences and Engineering team, led by Professor Nicholas Kotov, has developed a “new biologically inspired battery membrane” with recycled Kevlar fibers that could quintuple electric vehicle ranges and have a lifespan of 1,000 cycles.
The Ann Arbor, Michigan research facility is one of the best in the world, and Kotov, whose research focuses on the development of biomimetic nanocomposites, the self-assembly of nanoparticles, and chiral nanostructures, has worked to change the narrative on lithium-sulfur cells. “There are a number of reports claiming several hundred cycles for lithium-sulfur batteries, but it is achieved at the expense of other parameters—capacity, charging rate, resilience, and safety,” Kotov said in a press release from the University. “The challenge nowadays is to make a battery that increases the cycling rate from the former 10 cycles to hundreds of cycles and satisfies multiple other requirements including cost.”
Lithium-sulfur batteries can enable five times the capacity of standard lithium-ion cells, which are used in electric vehicles. However, as Professor Kotov mentioned in his quote, the lifespan is significantly decreased due to chemical reactions between molecules. The most common reason for reduced life cycles in lithium-sulfur batteries is dendrites, which are appendages that are designed to receive communications from other cells. These can pierce the membrane of cells, reducing the life span and thus the life cycle of a battery cell.
Another problem is polysulfides, or small molecules of lithium and sulfur, can form and flow to the lithium. They bond and cause blockages, reducing the effectiveness of the membrane. “The membrane is needed to allow lithium ions to flow from the lithium to the sulfur and back—and to block the lithium and sulfur particles, known as lithium polysulfides.”
However, Kevlar, the same material used in bulletproof vests, can stop dendrites from penetrating the membrane using dense aramid fibers found in the material. The cells that Kotov and his team developed use recycled Kevlar fibers. The Kevlar “can enable lithium-sulfur batteries to overcome their Achilles heel of cycle life,” caused by the two previously mentioned reactions between molecules.
An example of the Kevlar system is shown in the images below, as the typical Celgard membrane on the left allows lithium polysulfides to flow through. The Kevlar membrane (right) blocked the polysulfides from traveling through.
“Achieving record levels for multiple parameters for multiple materials properties is what is needed now for car batteries,” Kotov stated. Kotov added that the design of the lithium-sulfur batteries is “nearly perfect” due to its capacity and efficiency reaching theoretical limits. It can also behave more resiliently than lithium-ion cells in warm and cold weather climates, which both have effects on range and efficiency. However, fast charging could reduce the number of lifespans, Kotov added.
Lithium-sulfur batteries could be a good alternative as sulfur is more readily available and abundant than cobalt, which is controversial due to its mining practices. However, automakers like Tesla are reducing cobalt in their batteries vying for other metals, like nickel, instead. Sulfur’s low lifespan and instability, as it changes in size by 78 percent during charging, reduced the possibility of automakers using it in the past, The Independent reported.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense.
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