Finding unusual performance in unconventional battery materials

Even as our electronic devices become ever more sophisticated and versatile, battery technology remains a stubborn bottleneck, preventing the full realization of promising applications such as electric vehicles and power-grid solar energy storage.  Among the limitations of current materials are poor ionic and electron transport qualities. While strategies exist to improve these properties, and hence reduce charging times and enhance storage capacity, they are often expensive, difficult to implement on a large scale, and of only limited effectiveness.  An alternative solution is the search for new materials with the desired atomic structures and characteristics.  This is the strategy of a group of researchers who, utilizing ultra-bright x-rays from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Photon Source (APS), identified and characterized two niobium tungsten oxide materials that demonstrate much faster charging rates and power output than conventional lithium electrodes.  Their work appeared in the journal Nature.

Currently, the usual approach for wringing extra capacity and performance from lithium-ion batteries involves the creation of electrode materials with nanoscale structures, which reduces the diffusion distances for lithium ions.  However, this also tends to increase the practical volume of the material and can introduce unwanted additional chemical reactions. Further, when graphite electrodes are pushed to achieve high charging rates, irregular dendrites of lithium can form and grow, leading to short circuits, overheating, and even fires.  Measures to prevent these dendrites generally cause a decrease in energy density.  These issues seriously limit the use of graphite electrodes for high-rate applications.

>Read more on the Advanced Photon Source website

Image: Artist’s impression of rapidly flowing lithium through the niobium tungsten oxide structure. This is a detail of the image, please see here for the entire art work.
Credit: Ella Maru Studio

Brookhaven Lab scientist receives Early Career Research Program Funding

Valentina Bisogni, an associate physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory, has been selected by DOE’s Office of Science to receive significant research funding as part of DOE’s Early Career Research Program.

The effort, now in its ninth year, is designed to bolster the nation’s scientific workforce by providing support to exceptional researchers during the crucial early career years, when many scientists do their most formative work. Bisogni is among a total of 84 recipients selected this year after a competitive review of proposals. Thirty winners come from DOE national laboratories and 54 from U.S. universities.

“Supporting talented researchers early in their career is key to building and maintaining a skilled and effective scientific workforce for the nation. By investing in the next generation of scientific researchers, we are supporting lifelong discovery science to fuel the nation’s innovation system,” said Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. “We are proud of the accomplishments these young scientists have already made, and look forward to following their achievements in years to come.”

Each researcher will receive a grant of up to $2.5 million over five years to cover their salary and research expenses. A list of the 84 awardees, their institutions, and titles of their research projects is available on DOE’s Early Career Research Program webpage.

>Read more on the NSLS-II at Brookhaven Lab website

Image: Valentina Bisogni is shown preparing samples at NSLS-II’s Soft Inelastic X-ray Scattering beamline, where she will conduct her research funded through DOE’s Early Career Research Program.

Insulator metal transition at the nanoscale

An international team of researchers has been able to probe the insulator-conductor phase transition of materials at the nanoscale resolution. This is one of the first results of MaReS endstation of BOREAS beamline.

Controlling the flow of electrons within circuits is how electronic devices work. This is achieved through the appropriate choice of materials. Metals allow electrons to flow freely and insulators prevent conduction. In general, the electrical properties of a material are determined when the material is fabricated and cannot be changed afterwards without changing the material. However, there are materials that can exhibit metal or insulator behaviour depending on their temperature. Being able switch their properties, these materials could lead to a new generation of electronic devices.

Vanadium Dioxide (VO2) is one such material. It can switch from an insulating phase to a metallic phase just above room temperature, a feature exploited already for sensors. However, the reason why the properties of this material change so dramatically has been a matter of scientific debate for over 50 years.

One of the challenges in understanding why and how this switch occurs is due to a process called phase separation. The insulator-metal phase transition is similar to the ice to liquid transition in water. When ice melts, both liquid and solid water can coexist in separate regions. Similarly, in VO2, insulating and metallic regions of the material can be coexisting at the same time during the transition. But unlike water, where the different regions are often large enough to see with the naked eye, in VOthis separation occurs on the nanoscale and it is thus challenging to observe. As a result, it has been hard to know if the true properties of each phase, or the mixture of both phases, are being measured.

>Read more on the ALBA Synchrotron website

Image: (extract, original here) reconstructed holograms at the vanadium and oxygen edges (518, 529, and 530.5 eV) used to encode the intensities of the three color channels of an RGB (red, green, blue) image. At 330 K, an increase in intensity of the green channel, which probes the metallic rutile phase (R) through the d∥ state, is observed in small regions. As the sample is heated further, it becomes increasingly clear that the blue channel, which probes a intermediate insulating M2 phase, also changes but in different regions. At 334 K, three distinct regions can be observed corresponding to the insulating monoclinic M1, M2, and metallic R phases. As the temperature increases, the R phase dominates. The circular field of view is 2 μm in diameter. (taken from Vidas et al, Nanoletters, 2018).

Scientists find ordered magnetic patterns in disordered magnetic material

Study led by Berkeley Lab scientists relies on high-resolution microscopy techniques to confirm nanoscale magnetic features.

A team of scientists working at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has confirmed a special property known as “chirality” – which potentially could be exploited to transmit and store data in a new way – in nanometers-thick samples of multilayer materials that have a disordered structure.

While most electronic devices rely on the flow of electrons’ charge, the scientific community is feverishly searching for new ways to revolutionize electronics by designing materials and methods to control other inherent electron traits, such as their orbits around atoms and their spin, which can be thought of as a compass needle tuned to face in different directions.

These properties, scientists hope, can enable faster, smaller, and more reliable data storage by facilitating spintronics – one facet of which is the use of spin current to manipulate domains and domain walls. Spintronics-driven devices could generate less heat and require less power than conventional devices.

In the latest study, detailed in the May 23 online edition of the journal Advanced Materials, scientists working at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry and Advanced Light Source (ALS) confirmed a chirality, or handedness, in the transition regions – called domain walls – between neighboring magnetic domains that have opposite spins.

Scientists hope to control chirality – analogous to right-handedness or left-handedness – to control magnetic domains and convey zeros and ones as in conventional computer memory.

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source website

Image: (extract, here original image)The top row shows electron phase, the second row shows magnetic induction, and the bottom row shows schematics for the simulated phase of different magnetic domain features in multilayer material samples. The first column is for a symmetric thin-film material and the second column is for an asymmetric thin film containing gadolinium and cobalt. The scale bars are 200 nanometers (billionths of a meter). The dashed lines indicate domain walls and the arrows indicate the chirality or “handedness.” The underlying images in the top two rows were producing using a technique at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry known as Lorentz microscopy.
Credit: Berkeley Lab

Topological insulator gap in graphene contacted with Pb

Up to now the proposed modifications do not allow to introduce graphene to existing electronic devices.

Graphene is the most promising two dimensional material for nanoelectronic applications featuring the relativistic-like electronic spectrum. Contact of graphene with various materials and its functionalization allows to manipulate the electronic structure, e.g. to change the conductivity type and band gap creation. The latter is of great interest due to the requirements for graphene transistor realisation. Furthermore, graphene contact with heavy/magnetic metals results in the lifting of the spin degeneracy of the Dirac cone, opening the spintronics field for its applications. However, up to now the proposed modifications do not allow to introduce graphene to existing electronic devices.

>Read more on the Elettra website.

Image: a) Sketch of the studied system, the Pb atoms presented by yellow spheres; b) ARPES image of graphene/Pb/Pt(111) in the region of K point, taken as a sum of two spectra with p-and s-polarization of light; c) schematic spin structure of the graphene states in the case of large “intrinsic” spin-orbit interaction d) ARPES mapping of the system in two orthogonal k-directions near the K point of graphene.