Researchers at Deakin University in Victoria, in partnership with Australian start-up Li-S Energy, have developed a potentially revolutionary new lithium sulphur battery which could eventually lead to electric cars with a range of 1,000-kilometres, and mobile phones with a one-week battery charge.
Deakin University’s Nanotechnology research team, working with PPK Group Limited subsidiary Li-S Energy, announced say the innovative new lithium sulphur battery that could deliver a step-change in the global battery industry.
Although lithium sulphur (Li-S) batteries are considered to be a next-generation battery technology, they have been hampered by a nearly useless lifetime performance, typically degrading to the point of failure over very few charge and discharge cycles.
To iron out the flaws in lithium sulphur battery technology, Deakin’s researchers had to overcome what they saw as three key challenges: engineering a conductive interface with the sulphur cathode; controlling the structural integrity of the cathode over extended cycling; and preventing dendrite growth from the lithium metal anode.
In response to these challenges the researchers developed an innovative use of Boron Nitride Nanotubes (BNNT), a nano-material that has already seen use as an insulator in rechargeable batteries as well as applications in body armour, radiation protection, heat shields, and fireproof clothing.
In fact, though BNNT was discovered around 20 years ago by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr Richard Smalley – who described it as “the strongest fibre that you can make out of anything, ever” – it is 100-times stronger than steel, 300-time smore bulletproof than Kevlar, and heat resistant up to 3,000°C.
However, the costly production costs of BNNT have been comparatively prohibitive – unsurprising, considering that it requires a temperature of 5,000°C to produce, which in turn takes a huge amount of time and energy – selling for close to $AU1 million per kilogram.
Deakin’s researchers, however, have successfully managed to develop BNNT fibres at 1,350°C, allowing them to produce 1-kilogram of BNNT over a 5-day period from a single $AU850,000 production model, which would yield an annual BNNT production estimate of 50-kilograms per module while maintaining greater than 95% purity.
In comparison, only two years ago, only 1-kilogram of BNNT fibres could have been produced in a year.
“We have achieved a significant innovation breakthrough with our Li-S battery technology at a time when the world is demanding better batteries and more efficient energy storage devices,” said Dr. Lee Finniear, CEO of Li-S Energy Limited.
“The commercialisation journey for Li-S Energy Limited has begun and is on track to showcase this Australian company as a recognised leader in this exciting industry.”
Production cost and speed is not the only problem that has been overcome, however, as the resulting lithium sulphur batteries with BNNT retain the high energy capacity but avoid significant degradation over more than 450 charge and discharge cycles.
“These results are the culmination of 10 years of research into the development of lithium sulphur batteries and how that is influenced by advanced nanomaterials,” said lead Deakin researchers, Alfred Deakin Professor Ying (Ian) Chen and Dr Baozhi Yu.
“The belief and investment in the research program from Li-S Energy have now enabled us to bring our research toward a commercial reality.”
Testing continues to increase the charge and discharge cycle capacity, but Li-S has already lodged two key provisional patents covering the breakthrough technology. Research and initial production were undertaken at Deakin’s advanced manufacturing precinct in Geelong – leveraging the expertise of Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials and the facilities of Deakin’s ManuFutures scale-up accelerator.
Moving forward, however, will see initial production at Li-S Energy’s production plant set to be located at Deakin’s new ManuFutures 2 facility.
“This is an incredible achievement by our outstanding researchers, working with a visionary partner,” said Professor Iain Martin, Vice-Chancellor at Deakin University. “This success validates Deakin’s commitment and investment in the ManuFutures facility to create regional advanced manufacturing jobs based on Australian intellectual property.
“This development exemplifies our capabilities in turning Ideas to Impact and helps ensure we will continue to play a pivotal role in the transformation of our region.”
Joshua S. Hill is a Melbourne-based journalist who has been writing about climate change, clean technology, and electric vehicles for over 15 years. He has been reporting on electric vehicles and clean technologies for Renew Economy and The Driven since 2012. His preferred mode of transport is his feet.