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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Researchers eye manganese as key to safer, cheaper lithium-ion batteries

One of Earth’s most abundant metals, manganese could help replace expensive cobalt in battery cathodes.

Most of the lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars today depend, to some degree, on cobalt. This blue-gray metal helps pack more power into a battery safely, but it also poses a problem: Cobalt is expensive and often mined in unstable regions. As the market for energy storage grows, the search is on for battery chemistries that rely on cobalt far less, or not at all.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)‘s Argonne National Laboratory are developing a technology that centers on manganese, one of Earth’s most abundant metals. The work, which is funded by DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office, could apply not only to electric vehicles but the electric grid, where battery storage is needed for variable energy resources like wind and solar, and other industries.

The demand for energy storage is too great for one technology to fulfill it, so we’re looking for environmentally friendly, safe, inexpensive alternatives,” said Jason Croy, a physicist in Argonne’s Chemical Sciences and Engineering division. Manganese is a good option for that.”

The quest for alternative materials here centers on the cathode. When a battery charges, lithium ions flow from the cathode to the anode across an electrolyte, a process that reverses when the battery is discharged. Argonne researchers have already pioneered a nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) cathode material that is rich in lithium, with the potential to deliver a 50 to 100 percent increase in energy storage capacity over conventional cathode material. That technology has been licensed to manufacturers worldwide including General Motors, which adopted the cathode material in its Chevy Volt and Bolt models.

The demand for energy storage is too great for one technology to fulfill it, so we’re looking for environmentally friendly, safe, inexpensive alternatives. Manganese is a good option for that.” — Jason Croy, Argonne physicist

Now, with support from an internally funded technology maturation program, Croy and colleagues are intensifying work on a version of the NMC technology that boosts both the lithium and manganese content over currently used versions, ideally improving a battery’s energy density and safety while lowering costs. The improved technology is available for licensing, and Croy has co-authored a paper describing the research that was recently published in the Journal of Power Sources. This research was sponsored by the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office.

Much of the work to understand these materials over the past few years was done at the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a DOE Office of Science User Facility at Argonne that allows researchers to analyze what happens inside a battery at the atomic level. Croy and his colleagues made use of X-ray spectroscopy and diffraction techniques (using APS beamlines in sectors 11 and 20, operated by Argonne’s X-ray Sciences division) to help them understand how the materials behave during battery operation.

Using X-ray spectroscopy, we can probe the atomic structure and chemical environments of specific elements that make up the materials,” Croy said. This has helped us understand how these manganese rich materials actually work in real batteries.”

Other strategies for ramping down cobalt involve using higher percentages of nickel. But this, too, is problematic. Though nickel is much more abundant than cobalt, less than a fifth of the current supply is suitable for use in batteries. So as the demand ramps up, there’s actually a lot less nickel than you might imagine,” Croy said. That could cause a spike in nickel prices as everyone shifts toward nickel-rich chemistries.”

A battery with a manganese-rich cathode is less expensive and also safer than one with high nickel concentrations, but as is common in battery research, an improvement in one or two aspects involves a trade-off. In this case, increasing the manganese and lithium content decreases the cathode’s stability, changing its performance over time. 

Argonne researchers are designing and testing new cathode structures, coatings and electrolyte additives that could help address this issue.

The proof of concept is there — the technology works, it just needs that little bit of improvement in stability to get it to the next step,” Croy said. We expect to keep making progress.”

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy supports early-stage research and development of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies to strengthen U.S. economic growth, energy security, and environmental quality.

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://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.