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See the way those smooth, amorphous blobs rapidly transform into textured honeycombs? Something very similar is probably happening right now inside your laptop or smartphone’s battery.

The cherished efficiency and portability of those lithium-ion batteries comes with a cost: each cycle of discharge/recharge degrades the material’s essential structure and ultimate longevity - you’ve probably noticed that your older electronics just don’t hold a charge like they used to. Preventing this persistent degradation requires insight into a process that plays out on the elusive scale of just billionths of a meter.

Fortunately, Brookhaven scientists just demonstrated a breakthrough transmission electron microscopy technique that captures live action lithium-ion reactions with nanoscale precision. The results, including the movie above, revealed surprisingly fast chemical reactions sweeping across the surfaces of iron fluoride nanoparticles.

“We’ve opened a fundamentally new window into this popular technology,” said physicist and lead author Feng Wang. “The live, nanoscale imaging may help pave the way for developing longer-lasting, higher-capacity lithium-ion batteries. That means better consumer electronics, and the potential for large-scale, emission-free energy storage.”

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