Scientists Invent Self-healing Battery Electrode

3D rendered Molecule (Abstract) with Clipping PathMenlo Park, Calif. — Researchers have made the first battery electrode that heals itself, opening a new and potentially commercially viable path for making the next generation of lithium ion batteries for electric cars, cell phones and other devices. The secret is a stretchy polymer that coats the electrode, binds it together and spontaneously heals tiny cracks that develop during battery operation, said the team from Stanford University and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

They report the advance in the Nov. 19 issue of Nature Chemistry.


This prototype lithium ion battery, made in a Stanford lab, contains a silicon electrode protected with a coating of self-healing polymer. The cables and clips in the background are part of an apparatus for testing the performance of batteries during multiple charge-discharge cycles. (Brad Plummer/SLAC)

Self-healing is very important for the survival and long lifetimes of animals and plants,” said Chao Wang, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford and one of two principal authors of the paper. “We want to incorporate this feature into lithium ion batteries so they will have a long lifetime as well.”

Chao developed the self-healing polymer in the lab of Stanford Professor Zhenan Bao, whose group has been working on flexible electronic skin for use in robots, sensors, prosthetic limbs and other applications. For the battery project he added tiny nanoparticles of carbon to the polymer so it would conduct electricity.

”We found that silicon electrodes lasted 10 times longer when coated with the self-healing polymer, which repaired any cracks within just a few hours,” Bao said.

“Their capacity for storing energy is in the practical range now, but we would certainly like to push that,” said Yi Cui, an associate professor at SLAC and Stanford who led the research with Bao. The electrodes worked for about 100 charge-discharge cycles without significantly losing their energy storage capacity. “That’s still quite a way from the goal of about 500 cycles for cell phones and 3,000 cycles for an electric vehicle,” Cui said, “but the promise is there, and from all our data it looks like it’s working.”

Researchers worldwide are racing to find ways to store more energy in the negative electrodes of lithium ion batteries to achieve higher performance while reducing weight. One of the most promising electrode materials is silicon; it has a high capacity for soaking up lithium ions from the battery fluid during charging and then releasing them when the battery is put to work.

But this high capacity comes at a price: Silicon electrodes swell to three times normal size and shrink back down again each time the battery charges and discharges, and the brittle material soon cracks and falls apart, degrading battery performance. This is a problem for all electrodes in high-capacity batteries, said Hui Wu, a former Stanford postdoc who is now a faculty member at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the other principal author of the paper.

To make the self-healing coating, scientists deliberately weakened some of the chemical bonds within polymers – long, chain-like molecules with many identical units. The resulting material breaks easily, but the broken ends are chemically drawn to each other and quickly link up again, mimicking the process that allows biological molecules such as DNA to assemble, rearrange and break down.

To show how flexible their self-healing polymer is, researchers coated a balloon with it and then inflated and deflated the balloon repeatedly, mimicking the swelling and shrinking of a silicon electrode during battery operation. The polymer stretches but does not crack. (Brad Plummer/SLAC)

Researchers in Cui’s lab and elsewhere have tested a number of ways to keep silicon electrodes intact and improve their performance. Some are being explored for commercial uses, but many involve exotic materials and fabrication techniques that are challenging to scale up for production.

The self-healing electrode, which is made from silicon microparticles that are widely used in the semiconductor and solar cell industries, is the first solution that seems to offer a practical road forward, Cui said. The researchers said they think this approach could work for other electrode materials as well, and they will continue to refine the technique to improve the silicon electrode’s performance and longevity.

The research team also included Zheng Chen and Matthew T. McDowell of Stanford. Cui and Bao are members of the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences, a joint SLAC/Stanford institute. The research was funded by DOE through SLAC’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program and by the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.

SLAC is a multi-program laboratory exploring frontier questions in photon science, astrophysics, particle physics and accelerator research. Located in Menlo Park, California, SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. To learn more, please visit

The Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences (SIMES) is a joint institute of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University. SIMES studies the nature, properties and synthesis of complex and novel materials in the effort to create clean, renewable energy technologies. For more information, please visit

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

Citation: C. Wang et al., Nature Chemistry, 17 October 2013 (10.1038/nchem.1802)


Stanford scientists develop new technique for visualizing blood flow

Stanford scientists have developed a new technique for watching blood flow in living animals. It involves carbon nanotubes and lasers, and will allow researchers to better study arterial diseases and therapies.

By Bjorn Carey

These images of a mouse’s blood vessels show the difference in resolution between traditional near-infrared fluorescence imaging (top) and Stanford’s new NIR-II technique (bottom).
These images of a mouse's blood vessels show the difference in resolution between traditional near-infrared fluorescence imaging (top) and Stanford's new NIR-II technique (bottom).

Stanford scientists have developed a fluorescence imaging technique that allows them to view the pulsing blood vessels of living animals with unprecedented clarity. Compared with conventional imaging techniques, the increase in sharpness is akin to wiping fog off your glasses.

The technique, called near infrared-II imaging, or NIR-II, involves first injecting water-soluble carbon nanotubes into the living subject’s bloodstream.

The researchers then shine a laser (its light is in the near-infrared range, a wavelength of about 0.8 micron) over the subject; in this case, a mouse.

The light causes the specially designed nanotubes to fluoresce at a longer wavelength of 1-1.4 microns, which is then detected to determine the blood vessels’ structure.

That the nanotubes fluoresce at substantially longer wavelengths than conventional imaging techniques is critical in achieving the stunningly clear images of the tiny blood vessels: longer wavelength light scatters less, and thus creates sharper images of the vessels. Another benefit of detecting such long wavelength light is that the detector registers less background noise since the body does not does not produce autofluorescence in this wavelength range.

In addition to providing fine details, the technique – developed by Stanford scientists Hongjie Dai, professor of chemistry; John Cooke, professor of cardiovascular medicine; and Ngan Huang, acting assistant professor of cardiothoracic surgery – has a fast image acquisition rate, allowing researchers to measure blood flow in near real time.

The ability to obtain both blood flow information and blood vessel clarity was not previously possible, and will be particularly useful in studying animal models of arterial disease, such as how blood flow is affected by the arterial blockages and constrictions that cause, among other things, strokes and heart attacks.

L.A. CiceroGraduate student Guosong Hong, left, and chemistry Professor Hongjie Dai look at the vascular structures in a mouse model of peripheral arterial disease. Graduate student Guosong Hong, left, and chemistry Professor Hongjie Dai look at the vascular structures in a mouse model of peripheral arterial disease with blood vessels shown in great detail using their new imaging technique called near-infrared II fluorescence imaging.

“For medical research, it’s a very nice tool for looking at features in small animals,” Dai said. “It will help us better understand some vasculature diseases and how they respond to therapy, and how we might devise better treatments.”

Because NIR-II can only penetrate a centimeter, at most, into the body, it won’t replace other imaging techniques for humans, but it will be a powerful method for studying animal models by replacing or complementing X-ray, CT, MRI and laser Doppler techniques.

The next step for the research, and one that will make the technology more easily accepted for use in humans, is to explore alternative fluorescent molecules, Dai said. “We’d like to find something smaller than the carbon nanotubes but that emit light at the same long wavelength, so that they can be easily excreted from the body and we can eliminate any toxicity concerns.”

The lead authors of the study are graduate student Guosong Hong of the Department of Chemistry and research assistant Jerry Lee of the School of Medicine. Other co-authors include graduate student Joshua Robinson and postdoctoral scholars Uwe Raaz and Liming Xie. The work was supported by the National Cancer Institute, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and a Stanford Graduate Fellowship. The work was published online in Nature Medicine.

Media Contact

Hongjie Dai, Chemistry:  (650) 723-4518 , hdai1@stanford.eduThese images of a mouse's blood vessels show the difference in resolution between traditional near-infrared fluorescence imaging (top) and Stanford's new NIR-II technique (bottom).

Stanford scientists build the first all-carbon solar cell

Stanford Report, October 31, 2012

Researchers have developed a solar cell made entirely of carbon, an inexpensive substitute for the pricey materials used in conventional solar panels.

Stanford University scientists have built the first solar cell made entirely of carbon, a promising alternative to the expensive materials used in photovoltaic devices today. The results are published in today’s online edition of the journal ACS Nano.

“Carbon has the potential to deliver high performance at a low cost,” said study senior author Zhenan Bao, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford.  “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of a working solar cell that has all of the components made of carbon. This study builds on previous work done in our lab.”

Unlike rigid silicon solar panels that adorn many rooftops, Stanford’s thin film prototype is made of carbon materials that can be coated from solution. “Perhaps in the future we can look at alternative markets where flexible carbon solar cells are coated on the surface of buildings, on windows or on cars to generate electricity,” Bao said.

The coating technique also has the potential to reduce manufacturing costs, said Stanford graduate student Michael Vosgueritchian, co-lead author of the study with postdoctoral researcher Marc Ramuz.

“Processing silicon-based solar cells requires a lot of steps,” Vosgueritchian explained. “But our entire device can be built using simple coating methods that don’t require expensive tools and machines.”

Carbon nanomaterials

The Bao group’s experimental solar cell consists of a photoactive layer, which absorbs sunlight, sandwiched between two electrodes.  In a typical thin film solar cell, the electrodes are made of conductive metals and indium tin oxide (ITO). “Materials like indium are scarce and becoming more expensive as the demand for solar cells, touchscreen panels and other electronic devices grows,” Bao said.  “Carbon, on the other hand, is low cost and Earth-abundant.”

Scientist's hand holding carbon solar cellThe Bao group’s all-carbon solar cell consists of a photoactive layer, which absorbs sunlight, sandwiched between two electrodes.

For the study, Bao and her colleagues replaced the silver and ITO used in conventional electrodes with graphene – sheets of carbon that are one atom thick –and single-walled carbon nanotubes that are 10,000 times narrower than a human hair. “Carbon nanotubes have extraordinary electrical conductivity and light-absorption properties,” Bao said.

For the active layer, the scientists used material made of carbon nanotubes and “buckyballs” – soccer ball-shaped carbon molecules just one nanometer in diameter.  The research team recently filed a patent for the entire device.

“Every component in our solar cell, from top to bottom, is made of carbon materials,” Vosgueritchian said. “Other groups have reported making all-carbon solar cells, but they were referring to just the active layer in the middle, not the electrodes.”

One drawback of the all-carbon prototype is that it primarily absorbs near-infrared wavelengths of light, contributing to a laboratory efficiency of less than 1 percent – much lower than commercially available solar cells.  “We clearly have a long way to go on efficiency,” Bao said.  “But with better materials and better processing techniques, we expect that the efficiency will go up quite dramatically.”

Improving efficiency

The Stanford team is looking at a variety of ways to improve efficiency. “Roughness can short-circuit the device and make it hard to collect the current,” Bao said. “We have to figure out how to make each layer very smooth by stacking the nanomaterials really well.”

The researchers are also experimenting with carbon nanomaterials that can absorb more light in a broader range of wavelengths, including the visible spectrum.

“Materials made of carbon are very robust,” Bao said. “They remain stable in air temperatures of nearly 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.”

The ability of carbon solar cells to out-perform conventional devices under extreme conditions could overcome the need for greater efficiency, according to Vosgueritchian. “We believe that all-carbon solar cells could be used in extreme environments, such as at high temperatures or at high physical stress,” he said. “But obviously we want the highest efficiency possible and are working on ways to improve our device.”

“Photovoltaics will definitely be a very important source of power that we will tap into in the future,” Bao said. “We have a lot of available sunlight. We’ve got to figure out some way to use this natural resource that is given to us.”

Other authors of the study are Peng Wei of Stanford and Chenggong Wang and Yongli Gao of the University of Rochester Department of Physics and Astronomy. The research was funded by theGlobal Climate and Energy Project at Stanford and the Air Force Office for Scientific Research.