Atomic structure of sensitive battery materials and interfaces revealed by cryo–electron microscopy

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Science  27 Oct 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6362, pp. 506-510
DOI: 10.1126/science.aam6014

Frozen in time

The electrochemical processes occurring in a battery are highly dynamic. To understand the complexities of the charge and discharge cycles, you need to be able to watch the processes in situ or to freeze the battery rapidly for ex situ analysis. Li et al. applied cryo–electron microscopy techniques commonly used for studying biological samples to examine batteries. They identified the solid electrolyte interphase that forms, observed the interactions of Li with the interphase, and captured the formation of dendrites that can be detrimental to the lifetime of a battery.

Science, this issue p. 506


Whereas standard transmission electron microscopy studies are unable to preserve the native state of chemically reactive and beam-sensitive battery materials after operation, such materials remain pristine at cryogenic conditions. It is then possible to atomically resolve individual lithium metal atoms and their interface with the solid electrolyte interphase (SEI). We observe that dendrites in carbonate-based electrolytes grow along the <111> (preferred), <110>, or <211> directions as faceted, single-crystalline nanowires. These growth directions can change at kinks with no observable crystallographic defect. Furthermore, we reveal distinct SEI nanostructures formed in different electrolytes.

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