The breakthrough is described in a paper, "High-performance lithium battery anodes using silicon nanowires," published online Dec. 16 in Nature Nanotechnology, written by Cui, his graduate chemistry student Candace Chan and five others.
The greatly expanded storage capacity could make Li-ion batteries attractive to electric car manufacturers. Cui suggested that they could also be used in homes or offices to store electricity generated by rooftop solar panels.
"Given the mature infrastructure behind silicon, this new technology can be pushed to real life quickly," Cui said.
The electrical storage capacity of a Li-ion battery is limited by how much lithium can be held in the battery's anode, which is typically made of carbon. Silicon has a much higher capacity than carbon, but also has a drawback.
Silicon placed in a battery swells as it absorbs positively charged lithium atoms during charging, then shrinks during use (i.e., when playing your iPod) as the lithium is drawn out of the silicon. This expand/shrink cycle typically causes the silicon (often in the form of particles or a thin film) to pulverize, degrading the performance of the battery.
Cui's battery gets around this problem with nanotechnology. The lithium is stored in a forest of tiny silicon nanowires, each with a diameter one-thousandth the thickness of a sheet of paper. The nanowires inflate four times their normal size as they soak up lithium. But, unlike other silicon shapes, they do not fracture.
Chan grew the nanowires on a stainless steel substrate, providing an excellent electrical connection.
Cui said that a patent application has been filed. He is considering formation of a company or an agreement with a battery manufacturer. Manufacturing the nanowire batteries would require "one or two different steps, but the process can certainly be scaled up," he added. "It's a well understood process."
Publications from Cui research group