How to

19 June 2017

Researchers Discover Breakthrough in Production of Batteries for Cold Climates

Research from the University of California San Diego has led to a breakthrough in electrolyte chemistry. The most significant outcome of this is that they’ve found a way to produce lithium batteries that run effectively at temperatures as low as -60°C, while still maintaining a high performance when used at room temperature. This is a vast improvement on current lithium-ion batteries which are only efficient above temperatures of -20°C.

Img: David Baillot/UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering
What’s more, this new chemistry allows for electrochemical capacitors to run at a lower temperature of -80°, down from the original -40°.

The importance of this new research is that it could greatly impact on the capabilities of electric vehicles in colder climates by increasing their range of travel. It also means there is a possibility of developing batteries that can be used for crafts such as satellites, weather balloons and interplanetary rovers in extreme cold. Cyrus Rustomji, one of the researchers involved with the project, elaborated on the potential application in space by saying:

“Mars rovers have a low temperature specification that most existing batteries cannot meet. Our new battery technology can meet these specs without adding expensive and heavy heating elements.”

This is because the research took a riskier approach by looking into gas based electrolytes as opposed to the liquid and solid based ones that current batteries rely on. After researching a wide range of gases they eventually focused on two specific electrolytes for lithium batteries (fluoromethane) and electrochemical capacitors (liquefied difluoromethane) which were found to be effective due to their low viscosity. The team at UC San Diego discovered that as a result of this, these worked better at temperatures that would cause most liquid electrolytes to freeze.

Alongside that, they also realised these gases offered a safety advantage as they alleviated the problem of thermal runaway, a process where the battery becomes too hot and causes a chemical reaction that increases the heat further. These new developments mean that the battery would be unable to self-heat at high temperatures, and even if it shuts down because of overheating it will start working again when it cools down. This is a feature that is rare to find in conventional batteries.

Shirley Meng, who heads up the San Diego lab where this research was carried out, has said that it’s still early days and a lot more works needs to be done to identify if these new batteries would make for a practical alternative to what’s already out there. However, her team is feeling hopeful after early tests showed that the new batteries would be able to hold more energy and be more powerful.

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. When he’s not staying up late watching the Simpsons he’s beating the world at Mario Kart, always with a glass of wine in hand.