It’s a common assumption that if an accident happens in the lab, you can expect some hairy outcomes and serious consequences, but a recently unplanned event has resulted in a seemingly positive discovery. Chemists have now come across a system that is capable of making batteries last up to 400 times longer than even the best-performing options on the market today.
This new battery, which, instead of lithium, stores electricity in gold nanowires, would still need to be recharged, but would allow consumers to utilize them efficiently for over 200,000 charge cycles. To put this phenomenon into perspective, that’s about a lifetime use for products like phones, computers, cars, and spacecraft, too.
So what’s the problem?
The issue is that the researchers currently don’t know how the system actually works. “We started to cycle the devices, and then realised that they weren’t going to die,” explained lead researcher Reginald Penner from the University of California, Irvine, to Popular Science. “We don’t understand the mechanism of that yet.”
The researchers originally wanted to create a solid-state battery that would hold its charge through the use of electrolyte gel as opposed to the lithium batteries, which contain liquid and, along with being sensitive to temperature, are also extremely combustible. When they began experimenting, however, they discovered that the gold nanowires suspended in the electrolyte gel proved much more resilient than any other battery system.
The gold nanowires have proven brittle and prone to cracking in the past, but the addition of electrolyte gel by PhD candidate Mya Le Thai, along with the coating of manganese oxide, seems to have filled in the missing puzzle pieces. “Mya was playing around, and she coated this whole thing with a very thin gel layer and started to cycle it,” Penner said. “She discovered that just by using this gel, she could cycle it hundreds of thousands of times without losing any capacity.” Penner points out that these things “typically die in dramatic fashion after 5,000 or 6,000 or 7,000 cycles at most.”
Normal batteries wear over time — the more you charge and recharge them, the less effective they are. But the new system showed that, unlike regular batteries, which, after a few hundred charge cycles only contain a small amount of charge, it can withstand 200,000 charge cycles over three months while only losing 5 percent of its volume.
The results are astonishing to be sure, but researchers can’t put their findings into practice, as the system they have built isn’t a battery just yet. It’s also important to note that, even if they do pull through, batteries using gold will be quite expensive. Because of this, the team is now experimenting with nickel.
And still, the researchers must figure out exactly why the system works.