How scientists are on the verge of making an indestructible lithium battery

Lithium batteries are prone to catching fire and even exploding … and that causes a major problem, especially on planes.

But scientists are now working hard to come up with the ‘holy grail’ of lithium batteries – an indestructible one.

None more so than a team of researchers led by physicists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland, USA, who have, to say the least, put their new lithium battery through its paces.

In short, they have come up with a battery that has survived being shot, cut, bent and soaked in water and still continued working. It’s understood they have now made it fireproof as well.

Technology website Wired reports that to do this they have come up with a new style of electrolyte which is traditionally a mix of flammable lithium salts and toxic liquids separating the positive and negative sides to every battery. When you use a lithium-ion battery, charged lithium particles travel through a barrier in the electrolyte from the anode (the negative end) to the cathode (the positive end), where they undergo a chemical reaction that produces energy.

APL spokesman Jeff Maranchi says these traditional electrolytes are “a recipe for disaster,” explaining that if it crumbles it creates a short-circuit and when all this heat hits a highly flammable material like a lithium-ion electrolyte next to the oxygen-rich cathode in the battery it can cause the electronic device to go into what’s known as thermal runaway. This happens when one cell in a battery overheats it can produce enough heat – up to 900°C (1652°F) – to cause adjacent cells to overheat. This can cause a lithium battery fire to flare repeatedly and incidents of thermal runaway are on the rise.

This is why 80 airline companies across the world now have AvSax fire containment bags on more than 15,373 aircraft and they have been used 32 times to deal with emergencies since the start of 2017. AvSax won the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the UK in 2018.

Lithium batteries are used to power everything from mobiles phones to laptops and from vapes and electric cars.

APL’s ground-breaking technology involves using water-based electrolytes which are both non-flammable and nontoxic. Although they’ve been around for 25 years they have been too weak to be useful.

The APL team has worked out is that by increasing the concentration of lithium salts and mixing the electrolyte with a polymer—a material resembling a very soft plastic—they could bump the electric potential from around 1.2 volts to 4 volts which is comparable with commercial lithium-ion batteries. It now needs some fine-tuning, especially as to how many times it can be recharged without losing efficiency, but if all goes to plan it could be on the market within two years.

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