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Building a Better Battery

UNLV physicist Yusheng Zhao earns federal grant to create a more stable, higher performing lithium-ion battery.
Research  |  Aug 6, 2013  |  By Shane Bevell, Tony Allen
Yusheng Zhao, professor of physics. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

All of Boeing's new Dreamliner airplanes were temporarily grounded earlier this year after the aircrafts experienced problems with on-board fires related to lithium-ion batteries. Though Boeing revised the battery design and the Dreamliner returned to the air, the news caught the attention of UNLV physicist Yusheng Zhao.

Zhao, executive director of UNLV's High Pressure Science and Engineering Center, has been tasked by the U.S Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) with developing a new, fire-resistant solid electrolyte battery. The three-year, $3.1 million grant could lead to an alternative to the corrosive liquid used in today's lithium-ion batteries that can catch fire from impact, overheating, and overcharging.

Most lithium-ion batteries rely on a liquid electrolyte material to shuttle the lithium ions back and forth across the battery; however, liquid electrolytes run into safety problems due to their flammability. Zhao's team is hoping to make the batteries safer by replacing a liquid electrolyte with a solid, fire-resistant version using lithium-rich anti-perovskite (LiRAP).

"This new electrolyte material would help make vehicle batteries safer in an accident while also increasing battery performance by extending vehicle range and acceleration," says Zhao, who came to UNLV in 2010 after 18 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Critical Need

Lithium-ion batteries power most of today's electric vehicles, cell phones, and laptop computers.

"The battery is so important in renewable energy," he says. Despite their promise, Zhao says current lithium-ion batteries not only have safety issues but also lack energy density and power capacity.

"Energy density determines how long the vehicle can drive, power capacity means how fast you can accelerate, and safety is important because liquid electrolyte is corrosive, flammable, and toxic," says Zhao. "Because of this, it is difficult to use liquid electrolyte batteries in many high performance commercial applications."

If successful, Zhao says the new fire-resistant solid electrolyte LiRAP would greatly increase the lithium ion transporting rate, enhance the energy density and power capacity of today's best lithium-ion solid-state batteries.

"The ability to make higher performance batteries at a lower cost will give U.S. battery manufactures a significant and enduring advantage over their foreign competitors, while increasing the use of electric vehicles would decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil," says Zhao.

The project supports the U.S. Department of Energy's approach to solve the nation's most pressing energy challenges by funding technologies that show technical promise but are too early for private-sector investment. The project has attracted considerable support from private sector. Pathion Inc., an energy storage innovation company, and UNLV have signed a cooperative research and development agreement to work together in this new and promising field. Western Lithium Co., a lithium mining company that has projects based in Nevada, has donated a significant cache of instrument and chemicals to UNLV for battery research.

Partnering with Zhao on the grant are UNLV physicists Liping Wang and Ravhi Kumar, and Yahia Baghzouz from the Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering. Researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Texas, Austin are also partners on the project. Private sector collaborators include Pathion Inc. and K2 Energy Solutions, a Henderson-based company that produces lithium-ion batteries.