July 28 (UPI) -- Scientists have discovered a rare glassy metal that could help researchers build more efficient batteries, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Materials.
During experiments, material scientists from the University of California San Diego and Idaho National Laboratory found that when they slowed down the recharging process in lithium batteries, they were able to achieve an improved performance.
The slowdown caused the battery electrodes to accumulate atoms in a disorganized fashion, researchers said.
During the slowed-down recharging process, researchers observed a noncrystalline glassy lithium, a never-before-seen form of lithium.
In addition to improving battery performance, researchers suggest their experiments could be used to identify other rare glassy metals.
During the battery recharging process, lithium atoms are deposited on the surface of the anode -- the positively charged end of the cell. Because the deposition follows erratic patterns, charging performance often varies.
Researchers hypothesized that deposition patterns are dictated by the accumulation of the first few lithium atoms, which is called the nucleation process.
"That initial nucleation may affect your battery performance, safety and reliability," Gorakh Pawar, researcher at the Idaho National Laboratory, said in a news release.
Scientists used a powerful electron microscope with liquid-nitrogen cooling to watch the atomic embryos that begin the nucleation process. Computer models helped the researchers interpret the images.
The researchers realized certain recharging conditions yielded amorphous, glass-like lithium, instead of crystalline lithium.
"True teamwork enabled us to interpret the experimental data with confidence because the computational modeling helped decipher the complexity," said corresponding author Shirley Meng, professor of nanoengineering at the University of California, San Diego.
Previously, scientists have had to use alloys -- mixtures of different metals -- to produce glassy metals. The latest discovery marks the first time scientists have directly observed a pure amorphous metal.
When glassy metal began the nucleation process, the lithium embryos were more likely to remain amorphous throughout the charging process, improving battery performance.
Researchers found a slower deposition rate allowed for the formation of glassy metal embryos, the opposite of what scientists expected. They originally hypothesized that a slower deposition rate would allow atoms to assemble into more rigid formations.
After using computer algorithms to identify the ideal conditions for the formation of glassy metals, scientists successfully produced glassy forms of four more reactive metals.
In addition to improving battery performance, the researchers suggest their work could inspire the creation of glassy metals for a variety applications.