Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Tiny probe could produce big improvements in batteries and fuel cells


A new method helps scientists get an atom's level understanding of electrochemical properties

A team of American and Chinese researchers has developed a new tool that could aid in the quest for better batteries and fuel cells.

This is a nanoscale map of the metal ceria produced with the new probe shows a higher response, represented by a yellow color, near the boundary between grains of metal. The higher response corresponds to a higher concentration of charged species.

Credit: Ehsan Nasr Esfahani/University of Washington

Although battery technology has come a long way since Alessandro Volta first stacked metal discs in a "voltaic pile" to generate electricity, major improvements are still needed to meet the energy challenges of the future, such as powering electric cars and storing renewable energy cheaply and efficiently.

The key to the needed improvements likely lies in the nanoscale, said Jiangyu Li, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. The nanoscale is a realm so tiny that the movement of a few atoms or molecules can shift the landscape. Li and his colleagues have built a new window into this world to help scientists better understand how batteries really work. They describe their nanoscale probe in the Journal of Applied Physics, from AIP Publishing.

... more about:
»Applied Physics »battery »nanoscale

Batteries, and their close kin fuel cells, produce electricity through chemical reactions. The rates at which these reactions occur determine how fast the battery can charge, how much power it can provide, and how quickly it degrades.

Although the material in a battery electrode may look uniform to the human eye, to the atoms themselves, the environment is surprisingly diverse.

Near the surface and at the interfaces between materials, huge shifts in properties can occur -- and the shifts can affect the reaction rates in complex and difficult-to-understand ways.

Research in the last ten to fifteen years has revealed just how much local variations in material properties can affect the performance of batteries and other electrochemical systems, Li said.

The complex nanoscale landscape makes it tricky to fully understand what's going on, but "it may also create new opportunities to engineer materials properties so as to achieve quantum leaps in performance," he said.

To get a better understanding of how chemical reactions progress at the level of atoms and molecules, Li and his colleagues developed a nanoscale probe. The method is similar to atomic force microscopies: A tiny cantilever "feels" the material and builds a map of its properties with a resolution of nanometers or smaller.

In the case of the new electrochemical probe, the cantilever is heated with an electrical current, causing fluctuations in temperature and localized stress in the material beneath the probe. As a result, atoms and ions within the material move around, causing it to expand and contract. This expansion and contraction causes the cantilever to vibrate, which can be measured accurately using a laser beam shining on the top of the cantilever.

If a large concentration of ions or other charged particles exist in the vicinity of the probe tip, changes in their concentration will cause the material to deform further, similar to the way wood swells when it gets wet. The deformation is called Vegard strain.

Both Vegard strain and standard thermal expansion affect the vibration of the material, but in different ways. If the vibrations were like musical notes, the thermally-induced Vegard strain is like a harmonic overtone, ringing one octave higher than the note being played, Li explained.

The device identifies the Vegard strain-induced vibrations and can extrapolate the concentration of ions and electronic defects near the probe tip. The approach has advantages over other types of atomic microscopy that use voltage perturbations to generate a response, since voltage can produce many different kinds of responses, and it is difficult to isolate the part of the response related to shifts in ionic and electronic defect concentration. Thermal responses are easier to identify, although one disadvantage of the new system is that it can only probe rates slower than the heat transfer processes in the vicinity of the tip.

Still, the team believes the new method will offer researchers a valuable tool for studying electrochemical material properties at the nanoscale. They tested it by measuring the concentration of charged species in Sm-doped ceria and LiFePO4, important materials in solid oxide fuel cells and lithium batteries, respectively.

"The concentration of ionic and electronic species are often tied to important rate properties of electrochemical materials -- such as surface reactions, interfacial charge transfer, and bulk and surface diffusion -- that govern the device performance," Li said. "By measuring these properties locally on the nanoscale, we can build a much better understanding of how electrochemical systems really work, and thus how to develop new materials with much higher performance."


The article, "Scanning Thermo-ionic Microscopy for Probing Local Electrochemistry at the Nanoscale," is authored by Ahmad Eshghinejad, Ehsan Nasr Esfahani, Peiqi Wang, Shuhong Xie, Timothy C. Geary, Stuart Adler and Jiangyu Li. It appears in the Journal of Applied Physics on May 31, 2016 (DOI: 10.1063/1.4949473) and can be accessed at

The authors of this paper are affiliated with the University of Washington, Xiangtan University and the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.


Journal of Applied Physics is an influential international journal publishing significant new experimental and theoretical results of applied physics research. See

Media Contact

AIP Media Line


AIP Media Line | EurekAlert!

Further reports about: Applied Physics battery nanoscale

More articles from Materials Sciences:

nachricht How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years
27.10.2016 | University of California - Los Angeles

nachricht 3-D-printed structures shrink when heated
26.10.2016 | Massachusetts Institute of Technology

All articles from Materials Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Novel light sources made of 2D materials

Physicists from the University of Würzburg have designed a light source that emits photon pairs. Two-photon sources are particularly well suited for tap-proof data encryption. The experiment's key ingredients: a semiconductor crystal and some sticky tape.

So-called monolayers are at the heart of the research activities. These "super materials" (as the prestigious science magazine "Nature" puts it) have been...

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Prototype device for measuring graphene-based electromagnetic radiation created

28.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Gamma ray camera offers new view on ultra-high energy electrons in plasma

28.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

When fat cells change their colour

28.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>