Batteries made with sulfur could be cheaper, greener and hold more energy

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aviast

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Mahdokht Shaibani, Monash University

Lithium-ion batteries have changed the world. Without the ability to store meaningful amounts of energy in a rechargeable, portable format we would have no smartphones or other personal electronic devices. The pioneers of the technology were awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

But as society moves away from fossil fuels, we will need more radical new technologies for storing energy to support renewable electricity generation, electric vehicles and other needs.

One such technology could be lithium-sulfur batteries: they store considerably more energy than their lithium-ion cousins – in theory as much as six times the energy for a given weight. What’s more, they can be made from cheap materials that are readily available around the world.

Until now, lithium-sulfur batteries have been impractical. Their chemistry allows them to store so much energy that the battery physically breaks apart under the stress.

However, my colleagues and I have engineered a new design for these batteries which allows them to be charged and discharged hundreds of times without breaking down. We hope to have a commercial product ready in the next 2–4 years.

What’s so good about sulfur?

Lithium-ion batteries require minerals such as rare earths, nickel and cobalt to produce their positive electrodes. Supply of these metals is limited, prices are rising, and their mining often has great social and environmental costs.

Industry insiders have even predicted serious shortages of these key materials in the near future, possibly as early as 2022.

In contrast, sulfur is relatively common and cheap. Sulfur is the 16th most abundant element on Earth, and miners produce around 70 million tonnes of it each year. This makes it an ideal ingredient for batteries if we want them to be widely used.

What’s more, lithium-sulfur batteries rely on a different kind of chemical reaction which means their ability to store energy (known as “specific capacity”) is much greater than that of lithium-ion batteries.



The prototype lithium-sulfur battery shows the technology works, but a commercial product is still years away.
Mahdokht Shaibani, Author provided

Great capacity brings great stress

A person faced with a demanding job may feel stress if the demands exceed their ability to cope, resulting in a drop in productivity or performance. In much the same way, a battery electrode asked to store a lot of energy may be subjected to increased stress.

In a lithium-sulfur battery, energy is stored when positively charged lithium ions are absorbed by an electrode made of sulfur particles in a carbon matrix held together with a polymer binder. The high storage capacity means that the electrode swells up to almost double its size when fully charged.

The cycle of swelling and shrinking as the battery charges and discharges leads to a progressive loss of cohesion of particles and permanent distortion of the carbon matrix and the polymer binder.

The carbon matrix is a vital component of the battery that delivers electrons to the insulating sulfur, and the polymer glues the sulfur and carbon together. When they are distorted, the paths for electrons to move across the electrode (effectively the electrical wiring) are destroyed and the battery’s performance decays very quickly.

Giving particles some space to breathe



A CT scan of one of the sulfur electrodes shows the open structure that allows particles to expand as they charge.
Mahdokht Shaibani, Author provided

The conventional way of producing batteries creates a continuous dense network of binder across the bulk of the electrode, which doesn’t leave much free space for movement.

The conventional method works for lithium-ion batteries, but for sulfur we have had to develop a new technique.

To make sure our batteries would be easy and cheap to manufacture, we used the same material as a binder but processed it a little differently. The result is a web-like network of binder that holds particles together but also leaves plenty of space for material to expand.

These expansion-tolerant electrodes can efficiently accommodate cycling stresses, allowing the sulfur particles to live up to their full energy storage capacity.

When will we see working sulfur batteries?

My colleagues Mainak Majumder and Matthew Hill have long histories of translating lab-scale discoveries to practical industry applications, and our multidisciplinary team contains expertise from materials synthesis and functionalization, to design and prototyping, to device implementation in power grids and electric vehicles.

The other key ingredient in these batteries is of course lithium. Given that Australia is a leading global producer, we think it is a natural fit to make the batteries here.

We hope to have a commercial product ready in the next 2–4 years. We are working with industry partners to scale up the breakthrough, and looking toward developing a manufacturing line for commercial-level production.


Mahdokht Shaibani, Research Fellow, Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, Monash University


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
 

BoKu

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That's all well and good, but don't expect these to be available any time soon. Right now the latency between proof of concept and commercial availability of new battery technologies is about ten years. Their 2-4 year timeline sounds unreasonably ambitious.
 

cheapracer

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Their 2-4 year timeline sounds unreasonably ambitious.
If an Australian University says it, then it's likely true, one of the few you can actually trust, and they are generally ultra conservative in their claims.

However, the point of "when" is moot, it does NOT change the critical parameter, the battery weight.
 

Aerowerx

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If an Australian University says it, then it's likely true, one of the few you can actually trust, and they are generally ultra conservative in their claims.

However, the point of "when" is moot, it does NOT change the critical parameter, the battery weight.
...allowing the sulfur particles to live up to their full energy storage capacity.
Same energy>>>>smaller size>>>>less weight compared to conventional lithium????
 

Bille Floyd

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That's all well and good, but don't expect these to be available any time soon. Right now the latency between proof of concept and commercial availability of new battery technologies is about ten years. Their 2-4 year timeline sounds unreasonably ambitious.
If this were 3 decades ago , (i would agree) but at the moment
the sum total for "All" mans knowledge , is doubling at a rate
of EACH year ; the positive consequences of that , escape a Lot of
people !
For problem solving , it means a guy had more known data ,to
help choose a strategy.

Bille
 
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Vigilant1

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It this were 3 decades ago , (i would agree) but at the moment
the sum total for "All" mans knowledge , is doubling at a rate
of EACH year
The sum of all man's data may be doubling every year. The sum of all man's knowledge seems to be increasing a lot more slowly. All man's wisdom may not be increasing at all, on some days the reports of what counts as "progress" indicates that wisdom is positively plummeting.

A 2GB video of cavorting kittens spread to millions of web pages may be fun to watch, but it ain't knowledge. Everything written by Newton, Shakespeare, Adam Smith, and John Locke would be "smaller" and less significant than the kitten video if we are just counting bits.
 
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Hot Wings

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The sum of all man's data may be doubling every year
And this has created a situation where a lot more has been "discovered". But because there is so much data to sort through that the discoverer often doesn't realize that bit of knowledge may be several decades old - or more.
 

Dan Thomas

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The sum of all man's data may be doubling every year. The sum of all man's knowledge seems to be increasing a lot more slowly. All man's wisdom may not be increasing at all, on some days the reports of what counts as "progress" indicates that wisdom is positively plummeting.

A 2GB video of cavorting kittens spread to millions of web pages may be fun to watch, but it ain't knowledge. Everything written by Newton, Shakespeare, Adam Smith, John Locke would be "smaller" if we are just counting bits.
And if things were really doubling each year, why are we still flying behind piston engines designed long before I was born? Because they work reliably, and nothing has yet appeared that can do everything they do. Electric motors are smooth, powerful, light, but a 40-minute range makes them a curiosity, not a replacement. Maybe this sulfur-based battery will represent the great leap forward we need, maybe not. I've been hearing about hydrogen fuel cells since the ealry 1980s, about aluminum-air (?) batteries for six or seven years or more, and electric airplanes and cars are still using lithium and making impractically short flights.

The stuff that "doubles" every year is mostly electronic technology and information storage, transmission and access. None of those lift anything into the air or propel a vehicle on the surface. That requires brute force, lots of energy, and the laws of physics tend to ignore wishful thinking.
 

Aerowerx

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And this has created a situation where a lot more has been "discovered". But because there is so much data to sort through that the discoverer often doesn't realize that bit of knowledge may be several decades old - or more.
Reminds me of a SciFi story (Asimov??) I read several decades ago. Remember it was written back in the 1950s or 1960s .

To summarize...There was so much knowledge and everyone concentrated on their own specialty so that they knew nothing about what was going on in other areas. So the government took young gifted highly intelligent kids (what we call prodigies) and trained them as "general practitioners", and to free associate. Then turned them loose in the library. They could read anything and memorize it instantly. Then later they would read something else and instantly make an association. That is how "cross-specialty" discoveries were made. OF course the kids were socially and emotionally miserable.

70 years later, not too far from the truth! How many significant discoveries are sitting in some forgotten student thesis in a dusty college library?
 
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Aerowerx

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.... and the laws of physics tend to ignore wishful thinking.
I don't completely agree with this.

You might say that SciFi is a form of wishful thinking. Recall all the items we take for granted that were "scifi wishful thinking" in the last century?

Cell phones---Star Trek (inventor watched Star Trek as a kid)
Sliding doors at the grocery store---Star Trek
Flat Panel TV---Star Trek
Notepad Computers---Star Trek
Pocket Calculators---Asimov
Nuclear Subs---H G Wells
Manned Flight---ancient Greeks
Talking to your house---Star Trek ("Alexa, turn up the lights" "Computer, where is Capt. Picard?")
Moon landing---Early French silent film producer (can't remember his name)

And I am sure there are many others that I can't remember.

My point is that physics doesn't ignore wishful thinking. We need to learn how to apply our wishful thinking to the laws of physics, which includes extending our knowledge of physics itself.
 

Bille Floyd

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...

My point is that physics doesn't ignore wishful thinking. We need to learn how to apply our wishful thinking to the laws of physics, which includes extending our knowledge of physics itself.
Very well stated !!!!!!!

If it weren't for, (Wishful Thinkers) ; technologically speaking :
" we'd still be stuck, back in the 15'th century" .

Bille
 

Pops

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A person alive in 1900 and lived in the life style of that time and then jumped to 1950 would see a huge jump in about everything. Horse and buggy, to 1950 autos, low percentage of people in the nation with electric, to most of the nation with elecric, etc. Horse and buggy to jet airplanes. Complete different life style.

Now jump for 1950 to 2000. A person in 1950 (me) jumps to the year 2000. You can get out of the 1950 auto and into the 2000 auto and be at home, very little difference. Same for the airplane,etc. About the only large difference is in the Medical field and Computers. Not much difference in life style. No huge change in the average persons life style from 1950 to 2000, but a huge difference in the average persons life style from 1900 to 1950.
Thank God for modern medicine , without it, I would have been dead a long time ago.

I lived from 6 to 15 years old in the 1880's life style.
 

BBerson

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That places them eternally 26 years ahead of practical fusion energy, which is perpetually 30 years from fruition.
Yes, but fusion has been practical in nature without help for billions of years. Where are the natural batteries to copy?
 

Dan Thomas

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My point is that physics doesn't ignore wishful thinking. We need to learn how to apply our wishful thinking to the laws of physics, which includes extending our knowledge of physics itself.
By physics I meant Newton's Laws as they apply to flight. Airplanes still need thrust over time. Helicopters too. Most of the stuff you mentioned is electronic, and the big progress in the last 50 years has been electronic. From heavy, slow, expensive, very limited mechanical calculators to tiny, extremely capable digital units you buy for five bucks. Our cellsphones can do far more than my first desktop (80286) and costs a fraction of that old clunker. Electronics run our cars, but what they're controlling is the same old fire-in-a-can technology. Electronics made the moon landings possible. The invention of the transistor was the real driver of the whole thing (1948). My experience in high-school electronics was mostly vacuum-tube TVs and radios, stuff that never could have guided a lunar lander to a safe landing. Tubes ate enormous amounts of power and were slow and hot and the circuitry was bulky and heavy.

Now, if someone could invent an engine that does for motorized transport what the transistor did for computers and radios and TVs, we'd have something.

Edit: I don't think I said I though SciFi was wishful thinking. I was referring more to the constant vaporware and a few brave projects we see that never seem to come to fruition. Lots of claims and promises and projected dates and performance parameters, but where is the proof? What is the Terrafugia doing now, for instance? Moller's AirCar? Any air car? I want an air car, not a bunch of fancy CGI or more projections.
 
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