Nano "Beads on a String" Could Advance Battery Technology

Nanobeads of silicon on a string-like carbon nanotube

Tiny beads of silicon, grown on a tube a hundred thousand times thinner than a piece of paper, could store up to ten times more lithium than graphite, a component of many commercial batteries. Credit: University of Maryland NanoCenter.

Tiny beads of silicon, about ten thousand times thinner than a piece of paper, could someday make electric vehicles travel farther on a single charge or extend the life of your laptop’s battery.

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries—the kind in your phone, camera, and some hybrid cars—use graphite as an electrode in the battery. Silicon can store up to ten times more lithium ions than graphite, but until now, silicon structures tended to crack or break when they were used over and over. Now chemists and materials scientists at the University of Maryland have designed a tiny silicon structure for batteries that can last through more charging cycles than previous designs did.

The scientists—including Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) professors Gary Rubloff and John Cumings, and MSE graduate student Khim Karki—grew tiny beads of silicon on a carbon nanotube, then used a powerful microscope to watch the electrode charge and discharge.

To make the beads, their colleague, Assistant Professor YuHuang Wang (Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry) and his team attached part of a molecule sometimes found in food flavorings along carbon tubes less than fifty nanometers wide. Then they flooded the space with a gas containing silicon. The organic molecule caused beads of silicon to grow on the tube.

Then, they charged the silicon with lithium ions. The team watched the tiny electrode in action under the electron microscopes in the Maryland NanoCenter's NISP Lab.

The researchers think the structure is more resilient because unlike flat silicon coatings, silicon beads grow like flexible balloons. The organic molecule that initially attracted the silicon to the tube made the silicon bond to the tube more strongly, preventing the silicon from breaking apart, the researchers found.

As the beads were charged by the lithium, they grew and shrank without cracking or ripping.

The beads expand outward from the nanotube, but not toward each other, so they can be placed close together along the nanotube.

In addition to Cumings, Karki and Rubloff and Wang, the project's team of experimental and theoretical scientists included research associates Chuan-Fu Sun and Hongwei Liao (Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry); Associate Professor Teng Li and graduate student Zheng Jia (Department of Mechanical Engineering); Yu Qi (General Motors); and graduate student Yin Zhang (Xi’an JiaoTong University).

Funding for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation and by Nanostructures for Electrical Energy Storage (NEES), the Department of Energy’s Energy Frontier Research Center based at the University of Maryland.

For More Information:

Sun et. al. "A Beaded Strong Silicon Anode." ACS Nano, Accepted Feb. 12, 2013. DOI:10.1021/nn4001512 Abstract »

Published February 27, 2013