While lithium-ion batteries only lose about 5 percent of their charge after a month of storage, they can be costly, bulky, or too heavy in many applications. Primary, non-rechargeable aluminium-air batteries are much less expensive and more compact and lightweight, but they can lose 80 percent of their charge a month.
The MIT design overcomes the problem of corrosion in aluminium-air batteries by introducing an oil barrier between the aluminium electrode and the electrolyte. The oil is rapidly pumped away and replaced with electrolyte as soon as the battery is used. As a result, the energy loss is cut to just 0.02 percent a month — more than a thousandfold improvement.
While several other methods have been used to extend the shelf life of metal-air batteries (which can use other metals such as sodium, lithium, magnesium, zinc, or iron), these methods can sacrifice performance. Most of the other approaches involve replacing the electrolyte with a different, less corrosive chemical formulation, but these alternatives drastically reduce the battery power.
Pumping the liquid electrolyte out during storage and back in before use still sees significant corrosion and can clog plumbing systems in the battery pack. Because aluminium attracts water even after electrolyte is drained out of the pack, the remaining electrolyte will cling to the aluminium electrode surfaces. “The batteries have complex structures, so there are many corners for electrolyte to get caught in,” which results in continued corrosion, says researcher Brandon Hopkins.
A key to the new battery design is a thin membrane placed between the battery electrodes. When the battery is in use, both sides of the membrane are filled with a liquid electrolyte, but when the battery is put on standby, oil is pumped into the side closest to the aluminium electrode, which protects the aluminium surface from the electrolyte on the other side of the membrane.
The new battery system also takes advantage of a property of aluminium called “underwater oleophobicity” so that when the aluminium is immersed in water, it repels oil from its surface. As a result, when the battery is reactivated and electrolyte is pumped back in, the electrolyte easily displaces the oil from the aluminium surface, which restores the power capabilities of the battery. Ironically, the MIT method of corrosion suppression exploits the same property of aluminium that promotes corrosion in conventional systems.
The result is an aluminium-air prototype with a much longer shelf life than that of conventional aluminium-air batteries. The researchers showed that when the battery was repeatedly used and then put on standby for one to two days, the MIT design lasted 24 days, while the conventional design lasted for only three. Even when oil and a pumping system are included in scaled-up primary aluminium-air battery packs, they are still five times lighter and twice as compact as rechargeable lithium-ion battery packs for electric vehicles.
Aluminium-air batteries have been used as range extenders for electric vehicles to supplement built-in rechargeable batteries, and are also sometimes used as power sources in remote locations or for some underwater vehicles. But while such batteries can be stored for long periods as long as they are unused, as soon as they are turned on for the first time, they start to degrade rapidly.
Such applications could greatly benefit from this new system, says professor of mechanical engineering Douglas Hart. With the existing versions, “you can’t really shut it off. You can flush it and delay the process, but you can’t really shut it off.” However, if the new system were used, for example, as a range extender in a car, “you could use it and then pull into your driveway and park it for a month, and then come back and still expect it to have a usable battery. … I really think this is a game-changer in terms of the use of these batteries,” he said.
The team has already filed for patents on the process.
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