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Scientists in the States have come up with a new take on the design of lithium-ion rechargeable batteries. They claim their version makes the power packs not only less prone to combustion but also able to hold up to 50 per cent more energy.

Researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) in Argonne, Illinois discovered that combining a number of lithium and manganese metal-oxides into a composite material - dubbed 'lithiated nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide' - and using that as the basis for a battery's negative electrode increased the cell's capacity.

The cathode material reduces oxygen-catalysed reactions that can take place on the electrode's surface. It's these unwanted 'side reactions' that can cause the battery to catch fire and explode, quite a few incidents of which have been recorded over the last few years.

By making the cell more stable, batteries based on the new cathode can be charged to a higher voltage without the same risk of triggering the side-reactions seen in today's lithium-ion power packs, which use a cobalt-based cathode. That ups the capacity by 20-30 per cent.

Battery capacity is also proportional to cell size, and the Argonne team reckon their design boosts capacity sufficiently for manufacturers to not only offer higher capacities than current technology permits but also with a smaller-sized cell.

The new batteries even last longer, showing a far less rapid reduction in capacity over multiple charge-discharge cycles than conventional lithium-ion batteries do, the ANL team claimed.

ANL last month licensed its design to battery maker Toda Kogyo, allowing the Japanese company to bring the technology to market. At this stage, however, neither partners is saying how soon this could happen.

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