Lithium battery fires could be prevented using graphene coating, study says

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Engineering have published a paper in journal Advanced Functional Materials wherein they have suggested that a thin coating of graphene could help protect fires in lithium batteries.

Over the last few years there has been a surge in the use of lithium batteries – primarily due to their size and energy density – in the electric vehicle segment. Lithium batteries hold the promise of allowing electric vehicles to travel several hundred miles on one charge. However, there is one problem that affects their increased use – occasional fire – an occurrence known to battery researchers as “thermal runaway.” These fires occur most frequently when the batteries overheat or cycle rapidly. With more and more electric vehicles on the road each year, battery technology needs to adapt to reduce the likelihood of these dangerous and catastrophic fires.

Researchers report that graphene may take the oxygen out of lithium battery fires. If the oxygen combines with other flammable products given off through decomposition of the electrolyte under high enough heat, spontaneous combustion can occur.

Scientists knew that graphene sheets are impermeable to oxygen atoms. Graphene is also strong, flexible and can be made to be electrically conductive. Scientists thought that if they wrapped very small particles of the lithium cobalt oxide cathode of a lithium battery in graphene, it might prevent oxygen from escaping. First, the researchers chemically altered the graphene to make it electrically conductive. Next, they wrapped the tiny particles of lithium cobalt oxide cathode electrode in the conductive graphene.

When they looked at the graphene-wrapped lithium cobalt oxide particles using electron microscopy, they saw that the release of oxygen under high heat was reduced significantly compared with unwrapped particles.

Next, they bound together the wrapped particles with a binding material to form a usable cathode, and incorporated it into a lithium metal battery. When they measured released oxygen during battery cycling, they saw almost no oxygen escaping from cathodes even at very high voltages. The lithium metal battery continued to perform well even after 200 cycles.