By better understanding the intricacies of how lithium batteries operate, scientists can more easily identify opportunities to improve their performance, and scientists at the University of Cambridge have developed a powerful new tool for the job. A low-cost and novel microscopy technique has offered first-of-a-kind imagery of lithium ions in action, observations the team hopes can accelerate the development of smartphones and electric vehicles that charge in a fraction of the time.

“A better battery is one that can store a lot more energy or one that can charge much faster – ideally both,” says co-author Dr Christoph Schnedermann, from the University of Cambridge. “But to make better batteries out of new materials, and to improve the batteries we’re already using, we need to understand what’s going on inside them.”

Observing lithium batteries in action is currently possible only with expensive, sophisticated equipment such as electron microscopes or extremely powerful synchrotron X-ray machines, which are hundreds of thousands of times more intense than your typical X-rays. This isn’t really a viable way for scientists to study the processes going on within actual lithium batteries in real-world conditions, in real-time, as first author of the study Alice Merryweather explains.

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