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New Battery Material Goes with the Flow

A new material shows promise for batteries that store electricity for the grid

by Savannah Mitchem-Argonne National Laboratory News Office
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New battery material goes with the flowA new material developed at Argonne shows promise for batteries that store electricity for the grid. The material consists of carefully structured molecules designed to be particularly electrochemically stable in order to prevent the battery from losing energy to unwanted reactions.Image credit: Robert Horn, Argonne National LaboratoryA new material shows promise for batteries that store electricity for the grid.

The material, created by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, consists of carefully structured molecules designed to be particularly electrochemically stable in order to prevent the battery from losing energy to unwanted reactions. The results of the experiment, some of the best ever recorded for batteries of this type, were published Aug. 11 in Advanced Energy Materials.

In this type of battery, called nonaqueous redox flow, energy is stored in negatively and positively charged solutions inside large tanks.

The molecular makeup of the energized solutions in the tanks plays a major role in how much energy the battery is able to produce, and this research focused on designing the ideal molecule to dissolve in the positively charged tank. To maximize efficiency, the researchers had to structure the molecule to hold as much energy as possible while also being stable enough to limit superfluous reactions.

“We want the stability of the molecules to be high so the battery doesn’t break down prematurely, but we also want it to be able to hold a lot of energy. The two are at odds,” said Jingjing Zhang, a postdoc involved in the research.

The molecule’s reversibility, or its ability to be repeatedly charged and discharged, is the very property that allows flow batteries to function. During charging, molecules stored in the positively charged tank shed electrons through a process called oxidation. A problem arises when these now unstable, positively charged molecules begin to react with their surroundings, sapping the charge that would otherwise be stored in the tank and used for power.

“When it loses an electron, the molecule has a natural tendency to find another electron for a complete pair, and if they form a bond, that means it can’t produce electricity anymore,” said Lu Zhang, the leading scientist on the team.

Related Article: Seeing the Forest and the Trees to Find Parasitic Reactions in Batteries

The researchers on this project were able to shut down a common energy-sucking side reaction using a process called bicyclic substitution, which protects the most reactive parts of the molecule’s atomic scaffolding, somewhat like using insulation to cover exposed wires.

Bicyclic substitution itself is not new, but this research was the first to apply it to battery materials. Previously, battery scientists used bulkier protective atomic chains to increase stability. However, these shields tended to suffocate the battery; only half of the reactive molecular regions could be covered without eliminating the molecule’s ability to give off any energy at all.

“With bicyclic substitution, we finally found a way to protect all of the molecule’s reactive positions without losing its reversibility, and we were able to get very good performance out of it,” said Lu Zhang.

The researchers discovered that the battery suffered only a minimal loss of capacity after 150 cycles of charging and draining the battery, proving the high stability of the molecule.

“Bicyclic substitution allows us to avoid compromising between stability and reversibility,” said Jingjing Zhang. “Maximizing these two properties is key in engineering more efficient batteries for powering entire buildings and even larger systems in the future.”

The study, titled “Annulated Dialkoxybenzenes as Catholyte Material for Nonaqueous Redox Flow Batteries: Achieving High Chemical Stability through Bicyclic Substitution,” was funded by the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCSER), a DOE Energy Innovation Hub supported by DOE’s Office of Science.

Collaborators from Argonne National Laboratory included Jingjing Zhang, Ilya A. Shkrob, Rajeev S. Assary, Junjie Zhang, Chi Cheung Su, Bin Hu, Baofei Pan, Chen Liao, Zhengcheng Zhang, Larry A. Curtiss and Lu Zhang. Other scientists on the study included Zheng Yang, Wentao Duan, Wei Wang and Xiaoliang Wei from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Siu on Tung, Benjamin Silcox, and Levi T. Thompson from the University of Michigan.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy's 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, visit the Office of Science website.