Phones Could Charge in Minutes, Thanks to New Materials, Study Shows

Chemists at Cambridge University believe niobium tungsten oxides could be used to make smartphone batteries that charge faster. Getty Images

The frustration of waiting hours for your smartphone battery to charge could soon be consigned to history, thanks to scientists who have identified a new class of materials called niobium tungsten oxides.

Batteries are comprised of a positive electrode, a negative electrode and an electrolyte. When a battery in plugged into an electrical source, lithium ions are extracted from the positive electrode and travel through a crystal structure to be stored in the negative electrode.

As we all know, this process can take hours. So scientists at Cambridge University set out to find out how to make it faster. They believe materials called niobium tungsten oxides could hold the key.

This is important not only for juicing up smartphones and laptops. It could help the environment too.

While everything from screens to processing power has developed by leaps and bounds in the past few years, batteries have barely progressed. And this is holding back major technological advances from being adopted on a large scale. Electric cars and the grid-scale storage of solar power are two eco-friendly examples, said the authors of the study, which was published in the journal Nature.

Kent Griffith, first author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge University's chemistry department, said in a statement, "We're always looking for materials with high-rate battery performance, which would result in a much faster charge and could also deliver high-power output."

In past attempts to quicken charging, researchers tried to make materials in electrodes smaller by using nanoparticles to decrease the distance the lithium ions have to travel. But this hasn't worked.

"It's difficult to make a practical battery with nanoparticles. You get a lot more unwanted chemical reactions with the electrolyte, so the battery doesn't last as long. Plus, it's expensive to make," said Griffith.

Nanoparticles can also be difficult to make and challenging to pack tightly together in devices, explained Clare Grey, senior author of the paper and a professor at Cambridge's chemistry department. So the team took a different approach: It tried to find a material that inherently has the right properties, even if they are relatively big.

They found niobium tungsten oxides have a bigger particle sizes than other electrode materials and also have a rigid, open structure that lithium can pass through.

In tests, the scientists found the lithium ions moved through the oxides several orders of magnitude higher than in materials commonly used for electrodes.

The oxides are also simple to make and would be easily scalable for manufacturers, the authors said.

But don't get your hopes up for fast-charging batteries just yet, as the oxides are still a long way from being used commercially.