AI Comes Up With Revolutionary New Battery Design

Researchers have now utilized artificial intelligence's capacity to expedite the discovery and testing of novel materials to create a battery that is less reliant on the pricy and growing scarce mineral lithium.

Numerous everyday items as well as electric cars are powered by lithium-ion batteries. Additionally, as batteries are needed to store renewable energy from solar panels and wind turbines, they would be an essential component of a green electric grid. However, mining lithium is costly and harmful to the environment. It may be expensive and time-consuming to find a substitute for this essential metal, as millions of candidates will need to be developed and tested over several years by researchers. Nathan Baker and his colleagues at Microsoft completed the assignment in months by using AI. Compared to some rival systems, they used up to 70% less lithium in the design and construction of their battery.

The researchers searched for novel materials for the electrolyte, the battery component that allows electric charges to flow through, with a particular focus on solid-state batteries. Initially, 23.6 million potential materials were created by modifying the composition of known electrolytes and substituting certain lithium atoms with alternative elements. The materials that an AI system predicted would be unstable and those in which the chemical processes necessary for batteries to function would be weak were subsequently excluded. The behavior of each material throughout the battery's active operation was also considered by the researchers. Their list had only a few hundred applicants after only a few days, some of which had never been investigated previously.

“But we’re not material scientists,” says Baker. “So, I called up some experts who’ve worked on large battery projects with the Department of Energy… and said, ‘What do you think? Are we crazy?’”

Among the scientists answering the phone was Vijay Murugesan of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state. He and his associates proposed more AI screening standards. Murugesan's team finally selected one of the AI's recommendations to synthesize in the lab after further elimination rounds. It was notable because half of the sodium atoms that Murugesan would have anticipated to be lithium atoms were instead replaced. According to him, this is a unique electrolyte composition, and combining the two components raises some interesting concerns regarding the fundamental physics of how the material functions inside a battery.

Even though this material has a poorer conductivity than comparable prototypes that require more lithium, his team was nevertheless able to build a functional battery with it. Both Baker and Murugesan say that there is still plenty to be done to optimize the new battery. But it took almost nine months from the moment Murugesan initially spoke with the Microsoft team until the battery was strong enough to light a lightbulb.

Although the techniques used here are cutting edge in terms of machine learning tools, what really sets this apart is that it was developed and tested, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Rafael Gómez-Bombarelli, who was not engaged in the project. "Making predictions is very simple; persuading someone to fund actual experiments is a difficult task." According to him, the group employed AI to supplement and expedite computations that physicists had been performing for decades. However, challenges to this strategy can possibly arise in the future. According to him, materials other than battery components can call for a more intricate method of element combination because the data required to train the AI for this kind of task is frequently minimal.

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