A battery cell consists of a positive and negative electrode, called the cathode and anode. As the battery produces electrical current, electrons flow from the anode through a circuit outside the battery and back into the cathode. Having lost the electrons that are generating the current, some of the atoms in the anode — an electrically conductive metal like lithium — become ions that then travel to the cathode, moving through a conductive liquid medium called an electrolyte.
Recharging the battery reverses the process, and the ions travel back and stick onto the anode. But when they do, the ions do not attach evenly. Instead, they form microscopic bumps that eventually grow into long branches after multiple recharging cycles. When these dendrites reach and contact the cathode, they form a short circuit. Electrical current now flows across the dendrites instead of the external circuit, rendering the battery useless and dead.
The current also heats up the dendrites, and because the electrolyte tends to be flammable, the dendrites can ignite. Even if the dendrites do not short circuit the battery, they can break off from the anode entirely and float around in the electrolyte. In this way, the anode loses material, and the battery cannot store as much energy.
"Dendrites are hazardous and reduce the capacity of rechargeable batteries," said Asghar Aryanfar, a scientist at Caltech, who led the new study that is published this week on the cover of The Journal of Chemical Physics. Although the researchers looked at lithium batteries, which are among the most efficient kind, their results can be applied broadly. "The dendrite problem is general to all rechargeable batteries," said Aryanfar.
The researchers grew lithium dendrites on a test battery and heated them over a couple days. They found that temperatures up to 55 degrees Celsius shortened the dendrites by as much as 36 percent. To figure out what caused this shrinkage, the researchers used a computer to simulate the effect of heat on the individual lithium atoms that comprise a dendrite, which was modeled with the simple, idealized geometry of a pyramid.