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ILP Institute Insider

June 1, 2015

Teaming Up for Better Batteries

MIT’s Yang Shao-Horn and BMW’s Odysseas Paschos collaborate to advance fundamental research on lithium-ion battery technologies.

Eric Bender

Launched last year in the United States, the BMW i3 is a well-received electric automobile that highlights the promise and the practicality of current electric vehicles. With its extensive use of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic and other innovative engineering, “the BMW i3 is a deep dive into what the car of the future should be,” the New York Times commented. “It is efficient, sustainable and essentially a think tank on wheels.”

Yang Shao-Horn, MIT Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering (left), and Odysseas Paschos, BMW Battery Technology Researcher (right)
As electric cars have quickly evolved from curiosities to real consumer choices, auto manufacturers globally have pushed hard to improve the mileage range and other characteristics of the lithium-ion batteries that power the vehicles. That quest brought BMW to look around the world for academic partners doing complementary research—which in turn has launched a fruitful three-year collaboration with MIT’s Yang Shao-Horn, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering.

“The lithium-ion battery is a technology that has been made into a product without fully understanding how it works,” says Odysseas Paschos, a BMW battery researcher. “We don’t really understand what phenomena are occurring on a nanoscale level inside the battery cell that affect its performance, its lifetime, and its safety. Professor Shao-Horn’s group is known worldwide in this field, and we are very happy that we managed to start this collaboration with her.”

“All the exciting electric vehicles that BMW is developing leverage batteries more and more, and the current technology is not meeting the targets,” says Shao-Horn. “Energy density needs to be twice what the current lithium-ion battery technology can provide. Battery technologies that meet the power and safety requirements, have a lifetime of 10 years, and provide really fast charging are critical for the success of this fleet of vehicles.”

The collaboration between their research groups addresses two key technical challenges for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, in which lithium ions move via electrolyte from a negative electrode to a positive electrode as the battery discharges, and move back when it is charging.

One challenge for the joint BMW-MIT effort is to find a deeper understanding of the chemistry at the interface between the electrolytes and the two kinds of electrodes. “This interface essentially controls the efficiency of lithium-ion batteries, which limits the power capability,” says Shao-Horn. “It also can control the lifetime of the battery, for example how many cycles you can use it. This is very important for electric vehicle applications, because we need to cycle a large amount of lithium ions back and forth through that interface.”

A second challenge is to develop new battery cells based on solid-state electrolytes rather than the organic liquid electrolytes now commonly employed in lithium-ion batteries. The potential flammability of the current liquid electrolytes must be addressed with very carefully engineered measures for cooling and control that add bulk and cost.

The two groups are now working together to review the state of the art and the opportunities for research in these two areas. Kicking off their collaboration in autumn 2014, the Shao-Horn lab and BMW battery researchers have been hashing out technical questions and ideas in biweekly teleconferences meetings and in quarterly face-to-face discussions.

“Colleagues from our team are strongly engaged together with those in Yang’s team to solve any upcoming issues,” says Paschos. “Both projects are very dynamic. We know what we want to address, but there is always open discussion. We are very open in restructuring the way that we will approach the issue, because this is research and we cannot necessarily guide its results.”

On the MIT side, the collaboration provides an opportunity for scientific investigations that are more fundamental and less constrained than most projects funded by U.S. federal research agencies, Yang comments.

“This is research solving an important problem and looking at issues from a novel approach,” she says. “We can utilize any experimental technique or computational technique that we can envision. And to myself, and the students and postdocs in my lab, it’s extremely rewarding to work with not only a user of batteries but a developer of batteries. We can really see the impact of our work.”