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"Tin whiskers" could triple the capacity of lithium-ion batteries

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June 11, 2012

Tin anode creator Prof. Grant Norton and student, David Mackay

Tin anode creator Prof. Grant Norton and student, David Mackay

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For over 60 years, electrical engineers have been trying to minimize the problem of tin whiskers. Growing on tin-plated electronics, the needle-like structures get up to ten millimeters long, and can cause short circuits. Instead of trying to eliminate them, however, Washington State University’s Prof. Grant Norton has been looking into ways of growing them – albeit in a controlled manner. His research has led to the creation of a tin battery anode, which he claims could triple the capacity of lithium-ion batteries.

Ordinarily, the anodes in lithium-ion batteries are made from graphite. When the battery is being charged, lithium ions move onto the anode from the cathode – the larger the amount of ions that can be held on the anode, the more energy the battery can store. Once the battery is in use, the ions create an electric circuit as they move back to the cathode, discharging electrons in the process.

Norton and postdoctoral researcher Uttara Sahaym were originally trying to mitigate tin whiskers, when they realized that they could actually be useful. The nanoneedles (or “whiskers”) subsequently used for the tin anode were grown directly on copper foil, using a standard electroplating process. This reportedly means that the tin anode would be considerably cheaper to produce than traditional graphite anodes.

The 'tin whiskers' used for the anode

The "tin whiskers" used for the anode

More importantly, however, lab tests have also shown that the tin anode offers almost triple the energy storage capacity as its graphite counterparts – this comes thanks to the plentiful surface area of the whiskers, which provides a roost for a larger number of lithium ions. Additionally, batteries incorporating the tin anode could recharge more quickly and many more times than existing li-ions.

Norton and his colleagues are now in the process of building and testing batteries using their new anode. They have filed patents on the technology, and hope to have it commercialized within a year. Batteries incorporating the tin anode should be no different in shape or size than traditional batteries, so compatibility with devices shouldn’t be a problem.

Source: Washington State University via Forbes

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
11 Comments

These men mean business. Usually this kind of news states "be available in 5-10 years".

Kris Lee
11th June, 2012 @ 03:55 pm PDT

It would be pretty sweet if the 2015 Model S had a 1000 mile range!

3x the capacity would be amazing, for ALL things portable, but it would give a huge boost to the electrification of our automobiles.

Derek Howe
11th June, 2012 @ 07:30 pm PDT

oh man the first company that uses this tech will look very good vs the others.

Just like Apple did when they first boasted longest battery life on their laptops. (And MacBook Pro still have one of the longest)

Calvin k
11th June, 2012 @ 07:40 pm PDT

Will they be cheaper? almost always if some thing is better the cost goes up despite it being cheaper to make. I hope they get the cost of research back from licensing and the public can benefit from advances in technology. Just give it a trade name.

pointyup
12th June, 2012 @ 12:44 am PDT

If only I had a $ for everytime I read about some technology like this. Let's see where this tech is 12 and 24 months from now.

Derek - manufacturers aim to give cars about 300 miles in range. It would be much better to rather install a battery 1/3 the size (and hopefully in weight) of the current Tesla battery with the same range and hopefully or most likely pay LESS for the car (since the battery is about the biggest cost component of the car). The battery could actually be a bit smaller than 1/3 the size and still achieve the same mileage as the original battery because of the weight savings when lopping of 2/3's of the battery.

habakak
12th June, 2012 @ 10:41 am PDT

This triples the capacity, not necessarily the range. This spells great news as far as cheaper batteries down the road and if cathode and electrolytes are also improved, could mean 3 times the range. This is great news.

Nicolas Zart
12th June, 2012 @ 10:56 am PDT

Today we have the Tin Whisker, that could expand Li-Ion capabilities 3 times. Days ago we heard abt IBM working on the Li-Io-Air to duplicate current efficiencies, Tmrw we will see another fancy lab-idea in the same tune but with a different approach.

Where is the "TEC-MIXER", If 1+1 is 2, then we should have someone to make sense and built something that works better putting all the pieces together. I want to see the Tec-Mixer. Max

Max Fdez
12th June, 2012 @ 11:13 am PDT

Can't wait to put these in my RC planes!

Warhead
12th June, 2012 @ 11:25 am PDT

If anyone were to look this up you would find tin anodes for lithium ion batteries is not a new idea. Several Japanese companies worked on this about a decade ago. I will be surprised if you can buy a Lithium ion battery with a tin anode in the next 2 years, most likely you won't see it in the next decade if ever but we can always hope. The author would do all the readers a favor by pointing out the problems of of using tin, but maybe it is better not to have reality intrude on our dreams. There is always a better battery just down the road just like there is always a better engines down the road, and so there is but they are invariably just a little better.

When are we going to see those silicon anodes they have been talking about for the last decade and their large capacity improvement?

katgod
13th June, 2012 @ 05:39 pm PDT

Would a conductive aerogel (e.g. carbon aerogel) work better?

Michael Barnathan
13th June, 2012 @ 07:05 pm PDT

i love how the article said patents, and trying to market it in a year. EVERY article about something techy is usually like a concept car. We NEVER see anything like it, ever.

johnweythek
18th June, 2012 @ 07:44 am PDT
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