Nobel Prize–winning technique illuminates the fibers that set off battery fires

Cryo-electron microscopy shows that dendrite filaments are long, thin crystals

lithium dendrite crystals

SAY FREEZE  Scientists used an imaging technique called cryo-electron microscopy to snap the first close-ups of lithium dendrites, revealing them as long, needlelike crystals.

Y. Li et al/Science 2017

Cryo-electron microscopy, an imaging technique that netted three scientists the 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry, has provided the first atomic-level views of dendrites — whiskery lithium fibers that can spread through lithium-ion batteries, making them short-circuit and catch fire. Until now, scientists couldn’t examine dendrites so closely because the only technique for imaging battery components with atomic-level resolution destroys these fragile filaments, explains study coauthor Yuzhang Li, a materials scientist at Stanford University.

Li and his colleagues flash froze lithium dendrites with liquid nitrogen to preserve their structure before putting them under the microscope. The new pictures reveal each dendrite as a long, needlelike crystal, the researchers report in the Oct. 27 Science. Better understanding dendrite architecture and growth may help researchers devise better ways to keep these fibers from ravaging batteries in cell phones, laptops or electric cars.

Maria Temming

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News for Students. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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