Atomic Photos Reveal The Scientific Reason Behind Exploding Batteries

Exploding batteries have become one of the more prominent dangers of modern-day technology. Countless photos, videos, and stories of gadgets blowing up or catching fire due to a battery explosion have gone viral in recent years. Even large gadget manufacturers like Samsung haven’t been immune to these risks, with the Galaxy Note 7 getting pulled from shelves just last year following numerous reports of the above nature. But with scientists having found an explanation for these events, the new research might just have the potential to help tech companies create safe batteries that are hardly likely, if at all, to blow up.

In a attempt to explain why exploding batteries have become so commonplace these days, the researchers took what they claim are the first photos of a lithium battery blowing up at the atomic level. According to Popular Mechanics, a team of scientists from Stanford University and the SLAC National Laboratory snapped the photos with cry-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), a new technique that involves reducing the temperatures of samples to a few degrees above zero by dipping them in liquid nitrogen, and using high-powered electronic microscopes to analyze them.

In a statement, researcher Yi Cui explained that the new technique could open up “amazing opportunities” going forward, apart from being used to take atomic level photos of exploding batteries in action.

“With cryo-EM, you can look at a material that’s fragile and chemically unstable and you can preserve its pristine state—what it looks like in a real battery—and look at it under high resolution.”

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Yi added that the technique can be used in all sorts of batteries, with the lithium batteries used in the study being just one example of the many types that could play nice with cryo-EM technology.

As further explained by Science Alert, cryo-EM won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, as it also stood out for its ability to allow scientists to look at moving molecules at the atomic scale. Given the recent application of the technique, that would include the study of molecules that could result in exploding batteries and other related safety hazards.

The researchers discovered that the lithium metal dendrites in batteries are crystalline when they viewed them at the atomic level, forming mostly solid structures as they grew in various directions. Dendrites are filaments that are formed when a battery’s electrodes begin to degrade and metal ions form on its surface, causing overheating once the ions cross the barrier dividing the battery into two halves. And once they grow from one side of a battery to the opposite side, that causes batteries to short-circuit.

Prior to the new research, scientists had been working on chemical agents that could prevent batteries from exploding by reducing the chances of dendrite formation. With the help of cryo-EM, the Stanford and SLAC team examined the atomic structure of the dendrites before and after they were treated with the agents, discovering that atomic structure had become more “orderly” after the treatment process,. The researchers believe this could be the key to keeping dendrites “under control,” if not outright preventing them from forming.

“This tool can help us understand what different electrolytes do and why certain ones work better than others,” said researcher Yanbin Li, as quoted by Popular Mechanics.

Although the new study does not eliminate the issue of exploding batteries once and for all, Popular Mechanics added that the research could possibly help inform consumer electronics companies as they work on new technologies, allowing them to create batteries that don’t form dendrites and therefore aren’t at all likely to blow up and destroy the gadgets they’re used in.

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