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    The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
    • 2016-11-03 09:00:40
    • Article ID: 664123

    Peering Into Batteries: X-Rays Reveal Lithium-Ion's Mysteries

    Researchers are using the Office of Science's advanced light sources to study batteries in real-time.

    • Credit: Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

      Argonne physicist Mahalingam Balasubramanian loads an in situ lithium-ion battery into the low-energy resolution inelastic X-ray (LERIX) system at the Advanced Photon Source. This multi-element X-ray scattering instrument is helping Argonne researchers to understand the fundamental mechanisms that limit batteries' performance.

    Billions of smartphone owners are familiar with the dreaded “low battery” symbol on their devices. While consumers groan, scientists are working to understand why and when lithium-ion batteries in phones, plug-in electric vehicles, and other applications lose charge or fail.

    One of the best tools scientists are using in this investigation is x-rays from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) advanced light sources. These light sources use beams of electrons to produce x-rays that are more than a billion times stronger than those at the dentist’s office. Compared to weaker x-rays available in other facilities, the light sources allow researchers to gather more data in greater detail than they would be able to otherwise. Scientists are using these unique tools to examine how lithium-ion batteries function in real time.

    From the Lab to the Road

    In the 1990s, existing battery materials simply weren’t suited for the level of power and performance needed for hybrid or plug-in electric vehicles. In response, researchers at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory used the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a DOE Office of Science user facility, to observe interactions within batteries at the atomic level for the first time.

    The APS also lets scientists watch what’s happening at the atomic level as batteries are charging and discharging. With this understanding, manufacturers can improve batteries’ performance and lifetime and ultimately could craft more affordable and efficient electronics and plug-in electric vehicles.

    Scientists do this by using the APS to look at batteries in situ, or while they are actually working. Previously, scientists ran tests on a battery, took it apart, and examined it under a microscope. In contrast, studying batteries in situ allows them both to watch atoms moving inside the battery and to measure the stability of the molecular structure during the charging and discharging process.

    Once researchers supported by the Office of Science mapped out the fundamentals, they transferred the work to applied scientists supported by the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. That research led to a new cathode for lithium-ion batteries that was safer, more affordable, and able to store more energy than ever before. (The cathode is the positive electrode in a battery cell, which accepts lithium ions and electrons from the negative anode during discharge or use.) In fact, these advances were so significant that Chevrolet used the cathode in the first mass market plug-in electric vehicle – the Volt.

    X-Rays: Hard and Soft

    Both airport security machines and the APS produce “hard” x-rays, which are higher energy with shorter wavelengths (less than 1 nanometer or 1/100,000th the thickness of a piece of paper). Hard x-rays are very good at penetrating materials and looking at atomic structures.

    In contrast, “soft” x-rays are lower energy with longer wavelengths (1-10 nanometers). While their wavelengths are too long to examine atomic structures, they provide “really exquisite chemical information,” according to David Shapiro, a physicist at DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Using these x-rays, scientists can examine chemical states and these states’ transformations within nano-materials. The Advanced Light Source at LBNL, a DOE Office of Science user facility, is one of the world’s brightest sources of soft x-rays.

    Each of these light sources allows scientists to study a different aspect of the lithium-ion puzzle.

    “Every single technique has some sort of shortcoming with respect to the full story,” said Jason Croy, a materials scientist at Argonne. “[But] each technique can be really powerful to give you certain bits of information.”

    In fact, researchers enjoy the challenge of piecing the diverse findings together.

    “It’s a great field because it utilizes the strengths of all of the facilities,” said Shapiro.

    Examining Batteries from Every Angle

    Scientists from national laboratories, universities, and other research institutions are using the user facilities’ exceptional instruments to dig deeper into lithium’s interactions. The work at the three light sources is supported by DOE’s Office of Science.

    Understanding How Atoms Move at Argonne: Researchers at Argonne are building on the work that contributed to the Chevrolet Volt’s cathode. The original study sought to understand the structure of lithium with manganese and other transition metal oxide forms before it went through multiple charge-discharge cycles.

    Now, scientists are looking at how the battery’s structure degrades over time. As the battery charges and discharges, the lithium ions move in and out of the anode and cathode. However, other atoms within the electrodes move as well, causing damage and reducing the battery’s ability to deliver energy. Using the APS, scientists examined how these single atoms move and tracked how the structure changes with use.

    Currently, researchers are altering batteries’ structures and seeing how those changes affect the batteries. Ideally, these modifications will increase the stability of the batteries’ structures, minimize degradation, and improve their performance.

    Brookhaven Views Batteries in 5D: DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) recently added another dimension to battery research. They developed the most comprehensive look yet at batteries: a 3D chemical map at the nanometer scale that charts changes over time.

    Normally, x-ray spectroscopy produces 2D images that show the average of what’s going on across an entire sample. It doesn’t show what’s happening in individual layers.

    In contrast, the BNL team combined the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) – then a DOE user facility – and a unique full-field transmission x-ray microscope to develop a new x-ray nano-imaging technique. The scientists rotated battery samples 180 degrees under hard x-rays of different x-ray energies.

    “This is the first time [we can] in-situ monitor the phase transformation in 3D at nanometer scale in a working battery cell,” said Jun Wang, a physicist at BNL.

    Wang and her colleagues will continue their work at the NSLS-II, which will follow on from the original NSLS. The NSLS-II will eventually provide beams 10,000 times brighter than its predecessor, allowing scientists to study these reactions on an even finer time scale.

    Fast vs. Slow Charging at Lawrence Berkeley: LBNL researchers are examining the same problem, but from a different perspective and using a different machine. Using soft x-rays from the Advanced Light Source (ALS), they’re looking at how the speed of charging and whether a battery is charging or discharging affects the distribution and transport of ions.

    A team of researchers from Stanford University, working with LBNL, built a nanoscale see-through battery that has one ten-billionth of the charge of a smartphone. It allows them to observe the movement of individual lithium ions.

    Ideally, ions should distribute themselves evenly across the electrodes as they move back and forth. Unfortunately, they don’t, causing stress in certain spots.

    The team found that slow charging actually resulted in more irregular distribution than fast charging. This was surprising, considering that fast charging is usually considered more harmful to the battery. They also found that charging the battery caused more uneven distribution than discharging, or using the battery, does.

    Building on this research, LBNL scientists may be able to reduce one source of damage to batteries, improving their performance and lifetime.

    The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information please visit

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    Microbes Eat the Same in Labs and the Desert

    Analyses of natural communities forming soil crusts agree with laboratory studies of isolated microbe-metabolite relationships.

    Scientists Produce 3-D Chemical Maps of Single Bacteria

    Scientists at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II)--a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility at DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory--have used ultrabright x-rays to image single bacteria with higher spatial resolution than ever before. Their work, published in Scientific Reports, demonstrates an x-ray imaging technique, called x-ray fluorescence microscopy (XRF), as an effective approach to produce 3-D images of small biological samples.

    Self-Sensing Materials Are Here

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers invented a way to make a nanomaterial-embedded composite that is stronger than other fiber-reinforced composites and imbued with a new capability--the ability to monitor its own structural health.

    Diverse Biofeedstocks Have High Ethanol Yields and Offer Biorefineries Flexibility

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    Opening Access to Explore the Synthetic Chemistry of Neptunium

    New, easily prepared starting material opens access to learning more about a difficult-to-control element in nuclear waste.

    Symbiosis a Driver of Truffle Diversity

    Truffles are thought of as dining delicacies but they play an important role in soil ecosystem services as the fruiting bodies of the ectomycorrhizal (ECM) fungal symbionts residing on host plant roots. An international team sought insights into the ECM lifestyle of truffle-forming species through a comparative analysis of eight fungal genomes.

    Climate Simulations Project Wetter, Windier Hurricanes

    New supercomputer simulations by climate scientists at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have shown that climate change intensified the amount of rainfall in recent hurricanes such as Katrina, Irma, and Maria by 5 to 10 percent. They further found that if those hurricanes were to occur in a future world that is warmer than present, those storms would have even more rainfall and stronger winds.

    Tiny Titanium Barrier Halts Big Problem in Fuel-Producing Solar Cells

    New design coats molecular components and dramatically improves stability under tough, oxidizing conditions.

    X-Rays Show How Periods of Stress Changed an Ice Age Hyena to the Bone

    An international team has unearthed what life might have been like for a now-extinct subspecies of spotted hyena. They found that despite their massive size, some cave hyenas experienced times of hardship that affected them to the bone, causing areas of arrested growth that appear as dark lines, like rings on a tree trunk.

    Turning Wood Scraps into Tape

    A new chemical process converts a component of wasted wood pulp and other biomass into high-value pressure-sensitive adhesives.

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    Argonne's Min Si receives early career award from IEEE Computer Society

    Argonne's Min Si wins Award for Excellence for Early Career Researchers in High Performance Computing through the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

    Jefferson Lab Director Appointed to Distinguished Professorship

    Stuart Henderson, director of the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, has been appointed the Governor's Distinguished CEBAF professor at Old Dominion University. The position is supported by the Commonwealth of Virginia and is named for the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility, which is the main research facility located at Jefferson Lab.

    DOE issues call for HPC for Energy Innovation proposals

    The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) High Performance Computing for Energy Innovation (HPC4EI) Initiative today issued its first joint solicitation for the High Performance Computing for Manufacturing Program (HPC4Mfg) and the High Performance Computing for Materials Program (HPC4Mtls).

    DOE funding advances project to turn captured CO2 into key chemicals

    The U.S. Department of Energy has selected Southern Research for an award of up to $1.5 million to advance technology for carbon dioxide utilization.

    Sierra Reaches Higher Altitudes, Takes Number Two Spot on List of Fastest Supercomputers

    Sierra, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's newest supercomputer, rose to second place on the list of the world's fastest computing systems, TOP500 List representatives announced Monday at the International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage and Analysis conference (SC18) in Dallas.

    Green energy: Wind energy agreement will provide savings, 50 percent of electricity needs for Kansas State University Manhattan campus

    Kansas State University has signed an agreement with Westar Energy to provide approximately 50 percent of the energy needs for the university's main Manhattan campus from a wind farm in Nemaha County and save the university nearly $200,000 annually.

    INCITE grants awarded to 62 computational research projects

    The U.S. Department of Energy announced new projects for 2019 through its Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment (INCITE) program.

    Argonne's Raj Kettimuthu Named ACM Distinguished Member

    Argonne computer scientist Raj Kettimuthu recently was named a Distinguished Member of the Association for Computing Machinery for his development of tools to analyze and enhance end-to-end data transfer performance.

    Jefferson Lab-Affiliated Researchers Honored as APS Fellows

    The Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility now has a few more fellows on campus. The American Physical Society, a professional membership society that works on behalf of the physics community, recently announced its list of 2018 fellowships.

    Jefferson Lab Receives DOE Award for Energy Efficient Upgrade

    On Oct. 23, a team from the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility was honored at the 2018 Federal Energy and Water Management Award Ceremony for upgrades made to the lab's data center, ultimately improving its energy efficiency.

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    Microbes Eat the Same in Labs and the Desert

    Analyses of natural communities forming soil crusts agree with laboratory studies of isolated microbe-metabolite relationships.

    Diverse Biofeedstocks Have High Ethanol Yields and Offer Biorefineries Flexibility

    Evidence suggests that biorefineries can accept various feedstocks without negatively impacting the amount of ethanol produced per acre.

    Opening Access to Explore the Synthetic Chemistry of Neptunium

    New, easily prepared starting material opens access to learning more about a difficult-to-control element in nuclear waste.

    Tiny Titanium Barrier Halts Big Problem in Fuel-Producing Solar Cells

    New design coats molecular components and dramatically improves stability under tough, oxidizing conditions.

    Turning Wood Scraps into Tape

    A new chemical process converts a component of wasted wood pulp and other biomass into high-value pressure-sensitive adhesives.

    Very Heavy Elements Deliver More Electrons

    Scientists revise understanding of the limits of bonding for very electron-rich heavy elements.

    Probing Water's "No-Man's Land" Temperature Region

    Measuring the physical properties of water at previously unexplored temperatures offers insights into one of the world's essential liquids.

    Novel Soil Bacteria with Unusual Genes Synthesize Unique Antibiotic Precursors

    A large-scale soil project uncovered genetic information from bacteria with the capacity to make specialized molecules that could lead to new pharmaceuticals.

    Warmer Temperatures Lengthen Growing Season, Increase Plants' Vulnerability to Frost

    Experimental warming treatments show how peatland forests may respond to future environmental change.

    Rising Stars Seek to Learn from the Master: Mother Nature

    A trio of scientists was recognized for their early career successes in uncovering how microbes produce fuel, insights that could change our energy portfolio


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