Each year, computers get faster, stronger or come with a new technology, but the batteries that power them have fallen behind.
Looking to rectify the discrepancy, Texas A&M professor of chemistry Sarbajit Banerjee is part of a team that is working to advance the technology.
"We're interested in, fundamentally, how you go about building a better battery," Banerjee said.
To accomplish their goal, he said the team of researchers first set out to discover "what it is that chokes up a battery."
To study battery materials, Banerjee said the team uses a rare X-ray microscope housed in the Canadian Light Source facility in Saskatchewan.
"It has allowed us to basically get to the bottom of it," Banerjee said. "It showed us one of the fundamental issues that is an impediment to ions moving through this material."
Banerjee explained that every time a battery is used, it becomes a little less efficient until it finally becomes "unusable" all together. According to the team's research, Banerjee said they believe this loss of effectiveness is due to "traffic jam" of the electrons contained in the battery.
Early in the research, Banerjee said he and his colleagues noticed that when the same materials were tested at tiny sizes, they tended to perform faster and more efficiently. At larger sizes, he said it was observed that as they traveled through the battery's electrodes, electrons would get trapped in what he described as "puddles on the side of a road."
"These little puddles basically are accumulating and in a sense, they are sort of creating a jam for other electrons that are behind them. Until they can link up and start flowing, you're sort of stuck," Banerjee said. "What ends up happening is you eventually form that stream, but you're not using the entire particle, just a part of it."
Moving forward, he said the team is working to develop new compounds that could allow for batteries that have increased capacity, faster charging capabilities and a more efficient use of the energy stored.
While better smart phone batteries would surely be a welcome development for many, Banerjee said a larger motivation behind developing a better battery lies in benefits it could provide to various infrastructure technologies ranging from solar power to electric vehicles.
"There are some really big issues which could benefit, especially when you think about our grid right now," Banerjee said. "Right now, our grid is a sort of one-way street. The utility sends power to our homes and there is no real storage mechanism. At some point, when solar and wind [power] start to come along in a big way, we're going to have to store that energy effectively."
Collaborating with Banerjee on the project are scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Binghamton University and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.