Innovators often point to failure as their inspiration for success. Tongchao Liu can relate.
That’s because his groundbreaking research on why rechargeable lithium batteries eventually fail — and how to extend their life expectancy — has earned him a place on MIT Technology Review’s list of “35 Innovators Under 35” for 2023. The annual list aims to recognize “the people driving the next wave of innovation” in technology.
Liu’s pivotal discoveries could help accelerate the widespread adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) by overcoming their two primary pitfalls: short battery life and high cost.
“The widespread adoption of electric vehicles won’t happen until they can compete with gasoline-powered vehicles regarding life expectancy and cost. These innovations in battery composition help close the gap.” — Tongchao Liu, chemist at Argonne
The 32-year-old chemist and his colleagues at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory focused on battery life first. They wanted to learn why lithium batteries eventually stop recharging. So, Liu developed a novel diagnostic system using Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source (APS), a DOE Office of Science user facility, to analyze what happens to battery components at multiple scales as they discharge and recharge time after time.
The most common culprit is cathode failure. The cathode is where the electrical current exits a battery. In rechargeable batteries, the internal structure of the cathode expands and contracts physically each time the battery recharges and discharges. The repetition of this process breaks down the cathode’s chemical structure to the point where it cannot perform the required chemical reaction effectively enough for the battery to hold a charge. Put simply, the parts just wear out.
“It became clear that if we wanted lithium batteries to last longer and cost less, we would need a different cathode structure composed of more sustainable materials,” explained Liu.
So, he invented one with components made without cobalt, which is currently a common material in lithium battery cathodes. Cobalt is expensive, and the process of mining it has significant environmental and social costs. Liu’s new cathode tripled the life expectancy of his test batteries while cutting their production cost by approximately 25%.
Not surprisingly, these advances have caught the attention of multiple commercial battery makers and EV companies, according to Liu. This could speed the new technology’s path to market.
“The widespread adoption of electric vehicles is critical to the goal of achieving zero carbon dioxide emissions globally. But that won’t happen until electric vehicles can compete with gasoline-powered vehicles regarding life expectancy and cost. These innovations in battery composition help close the gap,” said Liu.
In fact, Argonne’s global leadership in EV battery technology drew him to the lab in 2016. After earning his Ph.D. from Peking University, Liu recognized the growing importance of battery technology to the global effort to build decarbonized and sustainable economies.
“I wanted to work at the top institution in the world for battery research and development,” he recalled. “As I evaluated different options, I learned that the battery materials used most widely in EVs today were invented at Argonne by the team I work with now. So, Argonne is where I wanted to be.”
Liu also said that the environment and culture at Argonne is highly supportive of early-career scientists: “The diversity of expertise, experience and backgrounds of the scientists at Argonne is amazing. Everyone is friendly and helpful. They want to collaborate with you, and that creates a community where early-career scientists can ‘grow up’ quickly.”
Going forward, Liu and his colleagues plan to use the same diagnostic process to find more potential battery materials that can provide longer life cycles at lower costs. Their work will benefit significantly from a comprehensive upgrade to the APS, currently underway. The new facility will come online in 2024. Specifically, the upgraded APS will provide researchers with improved spatial, temporal and energy resolution technologies. Liu and his colleagues will use these to detect evidence of nanoscale structural, compositional and morphological evolution in the potential battery component materials they analyze.
“The APS is one of the most powerful tools in the world for analyzing battery materials. And the APS Upgrade will make our diagnostic process even more effective,” said Liu. “I am really looking forward to what we can accomplish with it.”
This work is supported by the Vehicle Technologies Office within the DOE’s Office of Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
About the Advanced Photon Source
The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive X-ray light source facilities. The APS provides high-brightness X-ray beams to a diverse community of researchers in materials science, chemistry, condensed matter physics, the life and environmental sciences, and applied research. These X-rays are ideally suited for explorations of materials and biological structures; elemental distribution; chemical, magnetic, electronic states; and a wide range of technologically important engineering systems from batteries to fuel injector sprays, all of which are the foundations of our nation’s economic, technological, and physical well-being. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers use the APS to produce over 2,000 publications detailing impactful discoveries, and solve more vital biological protein structures than users of any other X-ray light source research facility. APS scientists and engineers innovate technology that is at the heart of advancing accelerator and light-source operations. This includes the insertion devices that produce extreme-brightness X-rays prized by researchers, lenses that focus the X-rays down to a few nanometers, instrumentation that maximizes the way the X-rays interact with samples being studied, and software that gathers and manages the massive quantity of data resulting from discovery research at the APS.
This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. DOE Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.