MIT researchers work on more powerful batteries


Washington: A team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is developing a technology that could lead to more powerful, lightweight batteries than existing ones.

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Yang Shao-Horn, MIT associate professor of mechanical engineering, says that many groups have been pursuing work on lithium-air batteries, a technology that could advance work on energy density.

But, there has been a lack of understanding of what kinds of electrode materials could promote the electrochemical reactions that take place in these batteries.

Lithium-oxygen (also known as lithium-air) batteries are similar in principle to the lithium-ion batteries that now dominate the field of portable electronics and are a leading contender for electric vehicles.

But because lithium-air batteries replace the heavy conventional compounds in such batteries with a carbon-based air electrode and flow of air, the batteries themselves can be much lighter.

That’s why leading companies, including IBM and General Motors, have committed to major research initiatives on lithium-air technology.

Yang, along with some of her students and visiting professor Hubert Gasteiger, reported on a study showing that electrodes with gold or platinum as a catalyst, show a much higher level of activity and thus a higher efficiency than simple carbon electrodes in these batteries.

Besides, this new work sets the stage for further research that could lead to even better electrode materials, perhaps alloys of gold and platinum or other metals, or metallic oxides, and to less expensive alternatives.

Doctoral student Yi-Chun Lu, lead author of the paper, explains that this team has developed a method for analysing the activity of different catalysts in the batteries, and now they can build on this research to study a variety of possible materials.

“We’ll look at different materials and look at the trends,” she says.

“Such research could allow us to identify the physical parameters that govern the catalyst activity. Ultimately, we will be able to predict the catalyst behaviours.”

Why it matters: Lightweight batteries that can deliver lots of energy are crucial for a variety of applications — for example, improving the range of electric cars, says an MIT release.

These findings were published in Electrochemical and Solid-State Letters.