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Demystifying the dark art of electrolyte design for next-generation batteries

A University of Chicago scientist demystifies the dark art of electrolyte design.

Create the building blocks for next-generation batteries

With over trillion tons of carbon dioxide currently circulating in the atmosphere and global temperatures should increase anywhere from 2 degrees to 9.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 to 5.4 degrees Celsius) in the next 80 years, the shift from fossil fuels to renewables is an urgent issue that requires critical attention. To effect the transformation, humanity will need entirely new energy storage technologies.

Lithium-ion batteries, the current standard, rely on flammable electrolytes and can only be recharged a thousand times before their capacity is significantly reduced. Other potential successors have their own issues. Lithium metal batteries, for example, suffer from short battery life due to long needle-like deformations called dendrites that grow whenever electrons shuttle between the anode and cathode of Li batteries. -metal.

Chibueze Amanchukwu

To usher in the next generation of batteries and drive carbon capture technology, Asst. Professor Chibueze Amanchukwu of Pritzker Molecular Engineering is looking for a solution in electrolytes. Credit: Photo by John Zich

To Chibueze Amanchukwu, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Molecular Engineering at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering in University of ChicagoSuch tricky chemistry boils down to a flawed and often overlooked process: modern electrolyte design.

“The current approach to battery design, especially with electrolytes, works like this: I want a new property, I research a new molecule, I mix it up, and I hope it works,” Amanchukwu said. “But as battery chemistry constantly changes, it becomes a nightmare to predict which new compound you should use out of the millions of possible options. We want to demystify the dark art of electrolyte design.

Electrolytes are the third major component inside a battery – a specialized substance, often a liquid, that allows ions to move from anode to cathode. To function, however, an electrolyte must exhibit a long list of very specific attributes, such as proper ionic conductivity and oxidative stability, requirements that are made even more daunting by the millions of potential chemical combinations.

“We want to demystify the dark art of electrolyte design.”

—Asst. Professor Chibueze Amanchukwu

Amanchukwu and his team want to catalog as many electrolyte components as possible, allowing any researcher to design, synthesize and characterize a multifunctional electrolyte tailored to their needs. They liken the approach to a popular construction toy.

“The beautiful thing about Legos, and the aspect that we’re going to replicate, is the ability to build different structures from individual pieces,” Amanchukwu said. “You can use the same 100 Lego pieces to build any number of structures because you know how each piece fits together – we want to do that with electrolytes.”

How to catalog a million components

To create its electrolyte building blocks, Amanchukwu first turns to the archives. Scientists have been studying electrolytes for over a century, and their data is available to anyone who wants to skim through it.

Amanchukwu and his team use “natural language processing,” a type of machine learning program, to extract data from scientific literature. Once a few promising compounds are found, researchers synthesize them and test them with tools like nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), a cousin of MRI, to better understand their properties and refine them even further.

Chibueze Amanchukwu and Lucy Schmid

Students in the Amanchukwu lab, like molecular engineering major Lucy Schmid (right), work directly on next-generation battery chemistry and carbon capture experiments. Credit: Photo by John Zich

Once tested, the compounds are placed in real batteries and studied again, and the resulting data is then fed back into the system.

The end result is a database of electrolytic components that can be easily combined as needed. Such a system would greatly accelerate the development of new batteries, but its impact would be felt even beyond.

Carbon capture technology currently relies on electrolytes in two ways. During the capture phase, an electrolyte acts as a solvent to help separate the carbon dioxide from the air, and later a second electrolyte helps convert the C02 into a usable product like ethylene.

However, this process is energy intensive. Amanchukwu believes an electrolyte with the right attributes would be able to combine the two stages, absorbing CO2 and converting it into a useful product at the same time.

A personal quest

Amanchukwu’s efforts to create change extend beyond the lab. He oversees SME education and outreach initiatives, many of which aim to attract underrepresented minorities into STEM fields.

Chibueze Amanchukwu Battery Material Technology

Asst. Professor Chibueze Amanchukwu holds a sample of battery materials for testing and characterization. Credit: Photo by John Zich

Its annual Battery Day teaches K-12 students about drum development through experiential lessons and art. It will also include coordinated workshops at Nigerian universities that will cover topics such as “enrolling for graduate school” and “energy careers”.

When asked what drives his outreach efforts and his mission to transform electrolyte design, Amanchukwu explained that both subjects are close to home, first citing several natural disasters his family has experienced in Texas. and in California.

“As a Nigerian,” he added, “I have realized that any technology we make must be relevant to the people back home so that we all fight to solve the problems of climate change and not let nobody aside”.

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