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Nano May Lead to Big Improvements in Batteries and Fuel Cells

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A nanoscale map of the metal ceria produced with a new probe developed by UW engineers shows a higher response, represented by a yellow color, near the boundary between grains of metal. Image credit: University of Washington

A team led by University of Washington engineers has developed a new tool that could aid in the quest for better batteries and fuel cells. Although battery technology has come a long way since Alessandro Volta first stacked metal discs in a “voltaic pile” to generate electricity, major improvements are still needed to meet the energy challenges of the future, such as powering electric cars and storing renewable energy cheaply and efficiently. The key likely lies in the nanoscale, said Jiangyu Li, University of Washington professor of mechanical engineering. Li and his colleagues describe a nanoscale probe that offers a new window into this world to help scientists better understand how batteries really work. Research in the last 10 to 15 years has revealed just how much local variations in material properties can affect the performance of batteries and other electrochemical systems, Li said. The complex nanoscale landscape makes it tricky to fully understand what’s going on, but “it may also create new opportunities to engineer material properties so as to achieve quantum leaps in performance,” he said.To get a better understanding of how chemical reactions progress at the level of atoms and molecules, Li and his colleagues developed a nanoscale probe. The method is similar to atomic force microscopies: a tiny cantilever “feels” the material and builds a map of its properties with a resolution of nanometers or smaller. The device identifies the Vegard strain-induced vibrations and can extrapolate the concentration of ions and electronic defects near the probe tip. “By measuring these properties locally on the nanoscale, we can build a much better understanding of how electrochemical systems really work, and thus how to develop new materials with much higher performance,” Li said.