Battery Research: From Lithium Detection to Figuring Out Lithium Transport Pathway

Chang Lu, Application Scientist, EDAX/Gatan

Ever since I started university and later began my graduate research work on energy-related topics, global warming and renewable energy are two subjects that appear frequently in papers and conferences. To mitigate and avoid the potential climate catastrophes that global warming may cause, governments and companies have invested heavily in renewable energy research over the years. Lithium batteries are one of the renewable energy technologies that are commonly used for cars and appliances. As you may know, many governments have implemented laws to ban fossil fuel cars sales in the foreseeable future and have encouraged companies like Telsa, Nio, and BYD to make these batteries more readily available.

However, charging an automobile is not as convenient as adding gasoline. And if you’ve ever driven an electric car, you’re probably aware of how much the mileage varies between summer and winter. But electric cars are the future. As universities, research institutes, and enterprises troubleshoot issues like these, I think the future of battery technology will be bright and more surprises will show up.

Since I joined Gatan, I have also been responsible for some of EDAX products. Gatan and EDAX are both scientific equipment providers of material characterization solutions for electron microscopy. For lithium batteries, we have a series of products that cover users’ application needs in one way or another. Last year, we introduced a joint characterization solution for lithium using the EDAX Octane Elite Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (EDS) Detector and Gatan OnPoint™ Backscattered Electron (BSE) Detector. With this solution, we can reduce the detection limit of lithium by nearly ten times, compared with current schemes, to a single-digit mass percentage. At the same time, the characterization ability is not affected by the oxidation state of lithium.

Figure 1. The lithium mapping from joint characterization of the EDAX Octane Elite EDS Detector and Gatan OnPoint BSE Detector.

Many users wonder why it is difficult to characterize lithium as a light metal (whether elemental or ionic) with an EDS detector alone. The reasons behind this are related to the mechanism by which X-rays are generated in electron microscopy and the window material of the EDS detector. Long story short, the generation of EDS signals requires the electron beam to knock out the electrons in the inner shell of an element, and then the vacancies cause the electrons from the outer shell to refill. After refilling the vacancy, due to the difference in energy levels of the two electron shells, an EDS signal corresponding to this energy difference is generated.

Figure 2. Characteristic X-ray production using Si K_α as an example. Adapted from

So, in this over simplified scheme, EDS can only detect lithium metal, and cannot detect lithium ions (just have two electrons in the K shell, no electron to refill the hole). In addition, due to the fact that the characteristic X-ray energy of lithium is only 55 eV, the common thick polymer window in EDS detectors absorbs low-energy X-rays heavily. However, the unique ultra-thin Si3N4 window material in EDAX EDS detectors provides higher X-ray transmittance at the low-energy range (see red line in Figure 3). Therefore, EDAX helps.

Figure 3. The low energy X-ray transmission rate comparison between EDAX Si3N4 window material (in red) and commonly used polymer window (in green).

Gatan’s image filter (GIF) system offers a different solution from another technical point of view on the same lithium detection issue, and the electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS) spectrum is much better and easier at detecting lithium. In contrast to the generation process of EDS signals, EELS signals begin to generate in the first step (inelastic scattering), namely the interaction of the electron beam with electrons outside the nucleus. The signal counts of EELS are much stronger than that of EDS, and the characterization of lithium is naturally much more convenient than that of EDS. Of course, lithium or battery materials, as a whole, are very sensitive and are not resistant to the electron beam, which creates additional requirements for Gatan’s imaging filter system. It needs to be fast, have high sensitivity, and low noise.

Figure 4. Gatan GIF Continuum K3 System.

The figure above shows the Gatan GIF Continuum K3 System, which has high sensitivity from the K3 direct detection camera. It can also collect data at high speeds with little noise. Last November, professor Meng Gu’s team at the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUST) in China published a paper on Matter. They used an extremely low beam dose (10 pA) to successfully characterize lithium and acquire the fine structure of the lithium element from electron loss near edge structure (ELNES) spectra. Then, they mapped out lithium metal and surficial oxidized lithium in their battery material using the MLLS function in the Gatan DigitalMicrograph® Software. The GIF Continuum K3 not only detects lithium but also identifies lithium in different chemical valence states. This work has important values for studying the “dead lithium” problem.

However, for lithium-ion battery research, the detection of lithium is only the first step. The more important content is about studying the transport pathways of lithium ions, and these pathways determine the energy density, capacity, and life span of a battery. But how do we characterize the flow of those ions? This problem corresponds with figuring out how to characterize the grain structure inside the cathode material of a battery. There is a correlation between the grain size of a cathode material, the specific crystal plane, grain boundaries, and the transport tendencies of lithium ions. In an ACS Nano article published at the end of last year, Yuki Nomura from Panasonic Company of Japan employed both precession electron diffraction (PED), a crystallographic characterization method similar to Electron Backscatter Diffraction (EBSD) but on a transmission electron microscope (TEM)), and the Gatan Quantum Imaging Filter Series, taking data from the same region of electrode material on an in-situ TEM. The results show the relationship between the real-time distribution of lithium at different stages during a charging reaction and certain grain boundaries and crystal planes block the movement of lithium ions. For a particular crystal orientation, lithium ions have a clear tendency to move through during charging, while some other crystal planes and grain boundaries have obvious resistance to the movement of lithium ions. Personally speaking, it is believed that from Yuki’s work, there will be more relevant research published in this field in the future. As a result, researchers are helping to achieve a more reasonable design for battery material’s crystal structure and chemical composition.

It’s hard not to think of the EBSD technology on a scanning electron microscope (SEM) after looking through the PED used in Panasonic’s paper. After all, EBSD can do all the functions that PED can achieve on TEM, except spatial resolution, on scanning electron microscopy, or even better (for example, angular resolution). Given the electron beam dose issue on battery materials, the main CMOS scintillator-based EBSD detectors on the market may have some difficulty with characterization. In response to this problem, EDAX has an EBSD product based on direct detection technology, the Clarity™.

Figure 5. a) Inverse pole figure (IPF) of lithium battery cathode material using normal EBSD experimental conditions, HV: 20 kV, beam current: 1.6 nA. Many unindexed points in cathode particle; b) IPF of the same cathode material but on a different region using the Clarity EBSD Detector, HV: 10 kV, beam current: 400 pA. where more structural details are disclosed; c) The Clarity EBSD Detector.

In August 2020, Donal Finegan’s team at the Renewable Energy National Laboratory (NREL) in the USA used Clarity to obtain orientations, grain boundaries, and morphologies information about NMC electrode material for lithium-ion batteries. This ample structural information helps researchers identify the mechanism by which intergranular cracks occur to understand the transport pathway of lithium ions, and the reduction of battery capacity caused by the expansion of cathode material lattice during charging and discharging processes. Previously, many publications only showed that polycrystalline, small grain cathode materials contributed to better battery performance. Still, the performance advantage caused by specific polycrystalline materials or those characteristics in small grains is not clear. Finegan’s work, through Clarity EBSD, helps us find the grain boundary structure that could be potentially beneficial thereby this work can guide people to designing more accurate battery materials. In addition, EBSD has another advantage. Counting on the material processing capabilities of Focused Ion Beam (FIB) electron microscopy, we can also achieve 3D-EBSD characterization and study grains on a three-dimensional scale. This feature is nearly impossible for PED. I believe that more research on grain size and boundaries based on three dimensions is the future, and will bring us more surprises.

As an application scientist works who for a scientific instrument company, I enjoy thinking deeply about the field of equipment applications and taking the practical problems from our users’ research as opportunities for us to improve our technical knowledge and demonstrate the superior performance of our equipment. In the future, I look forward to seeing our Gatan and EDAX equipment shine in the fields of renewable energy, additive manufacturing, ultrafast electron diffraction, cryo-EM coronavirus research, and other research fields. And I also look forward to, through my own learning and improvement, bringing more inspiration and thinking to our users from the application perspectives so that our users can not only use our equipment properly but also use our equipment in a more advanced way.


  • [1] Han, Bing, et al. “Conformal Three-Dimensional Interphase of Li Metal Anode Revealed by Low Dose Cryo-Electron Microscopy.” Matter (2021).
  • [2] Nomura, Yuki, et al. “Lithium Transport Pathways Guided by Grain Architectures in Ni-Rich Layered Cathodes.” ACS nano (2021).
  • [3] Quinn, Alexander, et al. “Electron backscatter diffraction for investigating lithium-ion electrode particle architectures.” Cell Reports Physical Science 1.8 (2020): 100137.

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