Lithium batteries are the lifeblood of nearly every mobile gadget in use today but the truth is, scientists still don’t know a whole lot about how they function at the atomic scale. To shed some light on the matter, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) have created a new device that provides a highly magnified view of what takes place during a lithium ion battery as it cycles.

The operand electrochemical stage, as it’s called, along with a state-of-the-art electron microscope, provide nanoscale resolution images of lithium ions during the cycling phase. Scientists can use this real-time imagery to better control both performance and safety properties when developing new battery technology.

Naturally, the ability to visualize what’s happening between the platinum anode and the electrolyte during operation as well as seeing what works and what doesn’t work will allow for expedited testing of new battery tech.

Specifically, scientists will be looking at dendrites, the thorn-like structures created from lithium-ion atoms. These grow in size over time and have the potential to break through the insulation that separates electrodes. When this occurs, it opens the battery up to short circuits which can have deadly consequences.

There’s been a lot of work over the past couple decades to try and eradicate dendrites. While scientists have been able to do just that, such methods resulted in impractical batteries with very little power – not exactly an ideal solution.

Of all the advancements we’ve seen surface over the past few years, this could end up being the most important yet.