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Stanford team demonstrates hollow carbon nanofiber-encapsulated sulfur cathode for high-capacity Li-S batteries

21 September 2011

Cui master.img-001
Schematic of design and fabrication process of hollow carbon nanofibers/sulfur composite structure. Credit: ACS, Zheng et al. Click to enlarge.

Li-Sulfur (Li-S) batteries are of interest for applications such as transportation due a high theoretical specific energy density (~2,600 Wh/kg) that exceeds that of conventional (LiCoO2/graphite) lithium-ion batteries by about a factor of five, good low-temperature performance, and its use of inexpensive and nontoxic raw materials. (Earlier post.)

However, Li-S batteries suffer from poor cycle life, with the fast capacity fading during cycling due to a variety of factors, including the dissolution of intermediate lithium polysulfides products in the electrolyte; large volumetric expansion of sulfur (∼80%) during cycling; and the insulating nature of Li2S.

Unlike Li-ion batteries which use a process called intercalation to insert the ions between molecules in the electrode, Lithium-sulfur batteries rely on a multi-step redox reaction with sulfur that results in a number of stable intermediate sulfide ions. The storage process, in theory, reduces limitations of electrode structure, thus enabling higher capacity in similar volumes.

However, the intermediate polysulfides are soluble in the electrolyte and can diffuse to the lithium anode, resulting in undesired parasitic reactions. Li2S2 and Li2S can also precipitate on the positive electrode, changing the morphology and resulting in fast capacity fading.

To tackle the polysulfide problem, researchers at Stanford University led by Dr. Yi Cui have developed a hollow carbon nanofiber-encapsulated sulfur cathode for effective trapping of polysulfides. In a paper in the ACS journal Nano Letters, they report the demonstration of experimentally high specific capacity and excellent electrochemical cycling of cells using the new cathode material.

...efficient trapping of polysulfides is highly desired for improving the cycle life of Li/S batteries...Based on our own research and literature studies in the past several years, we believe that an ideal structure for sulfur electrode should have the following characteristics: (1) a closed structure for efficient polysulfides containment; (2) limited surface area for sulfurelectrolyte contact; (3) sufficient space to accommodate sulfur volumetric expansion and small characteristic dimension of the sulfur electrode to avoid pulverization; (4) a short transport pathway for both electrons and Li ions to achieve high capacity at a high power rate; (5) a large conductive surface area for depositing insulating Li2S2 and Li2S, in order to preserve the morphology of electrodes; and (6) suitable electrolyte additives to passivate the lithium surface to minimize the shuttle effect.

Some of these characteristics require structure designs that are self-conflicting, such as the minimization of sulfurelectrolyte contact and the large surface area needed for Li2S2 and Li2S plating, which explain why it is very challenging to realize sulfur electrodes with high specific capacity and long cycle life.

To address these requirements, we designed a hollow carbon nanofiber-encapsulated sulfur electrode structure, comprising vertical arrays of hollow carbon nanofibers filled with melted sulfur.

—Zheng et al.

The researchers fabricated the hollow carbon nanofiber arrays using anodic aluminum oxide (AAO) templates through thermal carbonization of polystyrene. The AAO template also facilitates sulfur infusion into the hollow fibers and prevents sulfur from coating onto the exterior carbon wall. The high aspect ratio of the carbon nanofibers provides an ideal structure for trapping polysulfides, and the thin carbon wall allows rapid transport of lithium ions, the team noted in their paper.

The small dimension of the nanofibers provides a large surface area per unit mass for Li2S deposition during cycling and reduces pulverization of electrode materials due to volumetric expansion.

The researchers observed a high specific capacity of about 730 mAh/g was observed at C/5 rate after 150 cycles of charge/discharge. Introducing of LiNO3 additive to the electrolyte improved the Coulombic efficiency to more than 99% at C/5.


  • Guangyuan Zheng, Yuan Yang, Judy J. Cha, Seung Sae Hong, and Yi Cui (2011) Hollow Carbon Nanofiber-Encapsulated Sulfur Cathodes for High Specific Capacity Rechargeable Lithium Batteries. Nano Lett., Articles ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nl2027684

September 21, 2011 in Batteries | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)


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"The researchers observed a high specific capacity of about 730 mAh/g"

So assuming 2.2 volts for the cell, that would be equivalent to ~1,600 Wh/kg - presumably that's just for the cathode? Either way that is massive capacity, you'd be talking about a 45 kg battery pack providing 300 miles range. how much do they estimate these batteries would cost to produce at scale volumes?

Not only is that ~1,600Wh/kg...that is AFTER 150 cycles! That is one hell of a lot of cycles compared to previous attempts with LiS! Great progress guys.

'Stanford University led by Dr. Yi Cui' has gotten a lot of press for a lot of years since 2007.

How about a West Coast A123 or M24, beyond Amprius.


Good progress report. Early Li-S batteries were almost dead at 50 cycles, but we need to get to thousands of cycles and at least 1C rate.

Looks very promising, I wonder if it is compatible with the amazing alginate anode

This could be one more step towards future high energy density (400 to 600 Wh/Kg) batteries for highway extended range BEVs.

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