Sodium-Ion Battery Breakthrough: Fast Charging Without the Cracks

by Voinea Laurentiu

The quest for better batteries continues! Researchers are developing new, more affordable, and environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional lithium-ion batteries. Sodium-ion batteries are a promising contender, utilizing readily available materials in Europe for both stationary energy storage and powering electric vehicles.

One key advantage of sodium-ion batteries lies in their cathode materials, particularly layered oxides like sodium-nickel-manganese oxides. Dr. Simon Daubner, a researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), explores this technology within the POLiS Cluster of Excellence.

However, a challenge arises with fast charging. These layered oxide cathodes undergo significant structural changes when sodium ions are inserted or removed during charging and discharging. While slow charging allows for a controlled, layer-by-layer process, rapid charging stresses the material from all sides simultaneously. This can lead to permanent damage, hindering the battery's longevity and performance.

To understand this phenomenon better, researchers from KIT's Institute of Nanotechnology (INT) and Institute for Applied Materials (IAM-MMS) collaborated with scientists from Ulm University and the Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (ZSW). They employed computer simulations to analyze the situation.

Simulations Shed Light on Mechanical Stress

The beauty of computer models lies in their ability to examine various scales – from the atomic arrangement within the material to its overall microstructure and the entire battery cell. By combining these microstructured models with real-world experiments involving slow charging and discharging of the NaXNi₁/₃Mn₂/₃O₂ layered oxide, researchers identified several degradation mechanisms that reduce the battery's capacity. This currently limits the material's commercial viability.

The simulations revealed that the rapid structural changes cause elastic deformation, essentially shrinking the crystal structure. This shrinkage can lead to cracks and a subsequent loss of capacity. Importantly, the simulations conducted by INT and IAM-MMS showed that these mechanical stresses play a crucial role in determining the optimal charging speed for the material. Experiments performed at ZSW confirmed the accuracy of these simulations.

A Brighter Future for Sodium-Ion Batteries

These findings hold promise not just for the specific material studied but also for other layered oxides used in sodium-ion batteries. Understanding these fundamental processes allows researchers to develop more durable battery materials that can withstand the stresses of fast charging. Dr. Daubner suggests this could pave the way for widespread adoption of sodium-ion batteries within the next five to ten years.