Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have confirmed the particle-by-particle mechanism by which lithium ions move in and out of electrodes made of lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4, or LFP), findings that could lead to better performance in lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles, medical equipment and aircraft.

LFP, a natural mineral of the olivine family, is one of the newer materials being used in lithium-ion batteries and is known to be safer and longer-lasting than the lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2) compound used in smart phones, laptops and other consumer electronics.

By observing complete battery cross-sections, the researchers have provided key insights on a controversy over the process that limits the battery charging and discharging rates.

Previous attempts to optimize the charging/discharging speed have included coating the particles to increase their electrical conductivity and reducing particle size to speed up their transformation, but have overlooked the initiation process that may well be the critical rate-limiting step in the way that lithium moves from a particle’s exterior to its interior.

By using X-ray microscopy to examine ultrathin slices of a commercial-grade battery, Sandia researchers found evidence that charging and discharging in LFP is limited by the initiation of phase transformation, or nucleation, and is unaffected by particle size.

The LFP electrode forms a mosaic of homogeneous particles that are in either a lithium-rich or lithium-poor state. The Sandia research confirms the particle-by-particle, or mosaic, pathway of phase transformations due to insertion of lithium ions into the cathode. The findings contradict previous assumptions.

Lithium ions move in and out of battery electrode materials as they are charged and discharged. When a rechargeable lithium-ion battery is charged, an external voltage source extracts lithium ions from the cathode (positive electrode) material, in a process known as “delithiation.” The lithium ions move through the electrolyte and are inserted (intercalated) in the anode (negative electrode) material, in a process known as “lithiation.” The same process happens in reverse when discharging energy from the battery.

The researchers were able to build a commercial-grade coin-cell battery from raw materials using Sandia’s cell battery prototyping facility in New Mexico, which is the largest Department of Energy facility equipped to manufacture small lots of lithium-ion cells. The battery was then charged, tested for normal behavior, and disassembled at Sandia’s Livermore, Calif., facility through a new method of slicing layers that conserved the spatial arrangement from the cathode to the anode.

This story is reprinted from material from
Sandia National Laboratories, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.