Simplifying complex energy storage interfaces to develop better devices
Every technology that runs our world requires energy on demand. Energy must be stored and made available in order to power electronic devices and illuminate buildings. The large variety of devices that require on-demand energy has resulted in the development of several energy storage strategies.
Many energy storage systems use a combination of chemical and electrical processes to change the form of energy. This process produces an interface, which is the point at which two different materials meet and transform. Scientists must regulate what happens at and around these interfaces in order to create more efficient, long-lasting energy storage systems. But it’s not easy.
“Most research makes a complicated interface and then uses advanced characterization techniques to try to understand it,” said Grant Johnson, the Separation Science program’s head scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). “In comparison, we don’t make the whole interface. We prepare each piece separately, which allows us to study the individual components and how they form.”
Their technique is known as ion soft landing. The technology allows scientists to view how individual charged molecules, or ions, that exist at real energy storage interfaces interact with an electrode surface and an electric potential. It separates the chaotic interfaces that exist in real energy storage systems into distinct systems with only one kind of ion and the surface. The researchers may then investigate the role that each molecule plays in the formation of the interface.
Softly landing ions for targeted studies in energy storage
Ion soft landing enables researchers to select a single, specific type of ion by charge and size. The chosen ions then land gently on a conductive surface. This process prepares a precisely defined interface characteristic of the reactions of the selected molecules and surface material.
Once the interface is prepared, researchers may use other instruments to examine how the surface and the molecule interact. This characterization reveals information about the nature of the chemical bonds broken and formed at the interface.
Lithium-ion systems, which power many of our electronics, may be the most familiar energy storage devices. The PNNL research team, however, is exploring even more efficient and potentially transformative energy storage systems. These include lithium-sulfur ions, lithium-based solids, and moving beyond lithium chemistry. For this research, the team starts with an electrolyte solution of molecules and soft lands selected ions, like various lithium sulfides, on lithium metal with an oxygen-rich surface.
They recently discovered one way the negatively charged lithium-sulfur ions play a key role in the operation of these new energy storage devices at interfaces. They found that the ions undergo multiple reactions centered on the reduction and oxidation chemistry of sulfur, rather than lithium.
The findings explain the nature of the sulfur-oxygen bonds and related reacted molecules observed in energy storage devices. The ion soft landing work provides a molecular-level explanation for why oxidized forms of sulfur exist at lithium-sulfur interfaces. Understanding exactly how these important ions turn into solid materials at a model interface helps researchers break down the complicated interfaces in real devices.
“Each time we explore how an individual type of molecule reacts, we learn something new that builds collective knowledge about interface formation,” said Johnson.