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NU team creates batteries that charge faster, last 10 times longer

Northwestern University professor Harold H. Kung

It’s one of the frustrations of modern life – the cell phone battery that expires just as you’re waiting for a vital call; the ipod that runs out of juice as your favorite song comes on; the mad dash for a coffee shop to plug in your laptop before it dies.

But such moments could soon be fewer and farther between, thanks to a breakthrough in battery technology made by scientists at Northwestern University.

By combining two methods, a team led by Prof. Harold Kung says it has created lithium-ion batteries that last ten times longer and charge ten times faster than was previously possible.

After five years of research, the batteries are still two to five years from commercial production. But they hold out the promise of a smart phone that can run for a week on an eight minute charge.

Perhaps more significantly, Kung says, they could transform the electric vehicle industry, which is currently held back by limited mileage ranges and relatively lengthy charging times.

“It would take eight minutes to charge the batteries, whether it’s a small battery in a phone or a large group of batteries in a car,” he said. “There’s a lot of potential.”

Conventional lithium-ion batteries charge in a chemical reaction that sends lithium ions between the two ends of the battery – the anode and the cathode. By sandwiching a layer of silicone between the graphene sheets traditionally used to construct the anode, the battery can reliably hold far more lithium ions, increasing the battery’s capacity.

And by making tiny holes in the graphene sheets, the scientists allowed the ions to travel back to the anode more quickly, drastically reducing the recharging time, Kung said.

The researchers are looking for investors to help develop the technology, which would not be expensive to manufacture and is “very easily scalable,” Kung added.

“The challenge to supply and store energy in an clean and sustainable way is very exciting and important,” he said. “We just need to take a one or two more steps down the road.”