Of all the things that could go wrong with our beloved mobile devices, it's generally the battery that ends up letting us down first. In fact, it's rare for any smartphone or laptop that depends on a lithium-ion battery to go more than three years without significant loss of battery capacity.
Scientists working at the University of California, Irvine, believe they've accidentally stumbled upon a technique that could take that three-year average lifespan and boost it to an astounding 300 or 400 years. Such a breakthrough would greatly increase the lifespan of products, reduce waste and even help increase the mileage range of electric vehicles.
The key to achieving this breakthrough involves the integration of a material thousands of times smaller than a human hair. Called nanowires, these remarkable structures are able to store more than 10 times the energy of existing lithium-ion technology. Unfortunately, the filaments have proven to be extremely fragile under the stresses of charging, generally becoming brittle and breaking after only a few thousand charge cycles.
To move beyond the current standard of 500 to 3,000 charging cycles for the lithium-ion batteries in your phone or laptop, scientists would have to figure out a way to protect the nanowires from this dramatic erosion. Enter UCI doctoral candidate Mya Le Thai who, like other great accidental inventors, came up with a solution by simply experimenting in the lab.
"Mya was playing around, and she coated this whole thing with a very thin gel layer and started to cycle it," Reginald Penner, chair of UCI's chemistry department, said in a statement. "She discovered that just by using this gel, she could cycle it hundreds of thousands of times without losing any capacity."
Thai's solution involved taking gold nanowires and coating them in a manganese dioxide shell and an electrolyte made of a Plexiglas-like gel. Once entombed in this mix, the nanowires are rendered flexible, reliable and resistant to failure. Over the course of three months of testing, Thai cycled the electrode more than 200,000 times without any loss in capacity.
"The coated electrode holds its shape much better, making it a more reliable option," Thai said. "This research proves that a nanowire-based battery electrode can have a long lifetime and that we can make these kinds of batteries a reality."
While gold nanowires batteries would likely prove too expensive to mass produce, the UCI researchers believe similar results could be achieved using nanowires coated with nickel. Either way, the results are promising.
Maybe one day we'll put charge anxiety in the same obsolete category as VCRs and floppy disks.