Christopher Wolverton and his team of researchers at Northwestern University, in collaboration with a team of researchers from Argonne National Laboratory, have created a new lithium ion battery that shouldn’t work. For starters, it uses iron, a material that has always failed when used in other batteries. It also uses oxygen in a way scientists used to think would make batteries unusable.
Instead of producing another failing battery, Wolverton and Zhenpeng Yao, a PhD student in Wolverton’s laboratory, used computations to create a new formula that allows it to function. Specifically, they found the right balance of lithium, iron, and oxygen ions that enable the oxygen and iron to cause a chemical reaction that doesn’t result in the oxygen escaping, which would render the battery unstable.
“The problem previously was that often, if you tried to get oxygen to participate in the reaction, the compound would become unstable,” explained Yao. “Oxygen would be released from the battery, making the reaction irreversible.”
In the end, their battery not only works, but it’s rechargeable, cheaper than traditional lithium-cobalt-oxide batteries — as iron is one of the cheapest elements on the planet, and cheaper than cobalt — and has a much higher energy capacity. It could one day be used in smartphones and electric vehicles, thereby boosting their capabilities. According to Wolverton, their new battery could keep phones powered eight times longer “or your car could drive eight times farther.”
The team’s inexpensive batteries could also help decrease the price of electric vehicles (EVs), putting them on par with gas-powered cars. We’ve seen that people are open to buying EVs, but for some, the price isn’t low enough yet, unless they buy used.
“If battery-powered cars can compete with or exceed gasoline-powered cars in terms of range and cost, that will change the world,” said Wolverton.
Wolverton and his team aren’t finished working on their battery. In fact, Wolverton has since filed a provisional patent with Northwestern’s Innovation and New Ventures Office. He and his team also intend to test other compounds and materials to see if their methods will continue to work. If so, we could see an even wider range of cheaper, more efficient batteries.