Waterloo chemist one step closer to a new generation of electric car battery

Monday, January 12, 2015

Electric car being recharged.

Lithium sulphur (Li-S) batteries can theoretically power an electric car three times further than current lithium-ion batteries for the same weight – at much lower cost.

Chemistry Professor Linda Nazar and her research team in the Faculty of Science at the University of Waterloo have announced a breakthrough in Li-S battery technology based on chemical process discovered 170 years ago.

This is a major step forward and brings the Li-S battery one step closer to reality, said Nazar, who also holds the Canada Research Chair in Solid State Energy Materials and is a Thomson Reuters’ Highly Cited Researcher.

Their discovery that nanosheets of manganese dioxide can maintain a rechargeable sulphur cathode helps to overcome a primary hurdle to building a Li-S battery. Their research appears in this week’s issue of Nature Communications

The fundamental mechanism at work is similar to the chemical process behind Wackenroder’s Solution discovered in 1845 during a golden age of German sulphur chemistry.

Very few researchers study or even teach sulphur chemistry anymore, said Nazar. It’s ironic we had to look so far back in the literature to understand something that may so radically change our future.

Linda NazarNazar’s group is best known for their 2009 Nature Materials paper demonstrating the feasibility of a Li-S battery using nanomaterials. In theory, sulphur can provide a competitive cathode material to lithium cobalt oxide in current lithium-ion cells. Sulphur as a battery material is extremely abundant, relatively light, and very cheap.

Unfortunately, the sulphur cathode exhausts itself after only a few cycles because the sulphur dissolves into the electrolyte solution as it’s reduced by incoming electrons to form polysulphides.

Nazar’s group originally thought that porous carbons or graphenes could stabilize the polysulphides by physically trapping them. But in an unexpected twist, they discovered metal oxides could be the key. Their initial work on a metallic titanium oxide was published earlier in August in Nature Communications.

While the researchers found since then that nanosheets of manganese dioxide work even better than titanium oxides, their main goal in this paper was to clarify the mechanism at work.

“You have to focus on a fundamental understanding of the phenomenon before you can develop new, advanced materials,” said Nazar.

They found that the oxygenated surface of the ultrathin manganese dioxide nanosheet chemically recycles the sulphides in a two-step process involving a surface-bound intermediate, polythiosulfate. The result is a high-performance cathode that can recharge more than 2000 cycles.

Postdoctoral research associate Xiao Liang, the lead author, and graduate students Connor Hart and Quan Pang also discovered that graphene oxide seems to work by a similar mechanism. They are currently investigating other oxides to find the best sulphur retaining material.

BASF International Scientific Network for Electrochemistry and Batteries funded the research. The paper’s co-authors include Arnd Garsuch and Thomas Weiss of BASF.

Science in the mediaThis story has appeared in the following news outlets:

  • Toronto Star, "Waterloo chemists try sulphur to boost electrics"
  • GreenTech Lead, "Next generation electric car in making"
  • Product Design & Development, "Breakthrough in electric car battery research"