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Engineers from MIT and Kyushu University in Japan have demonstrated for the first time that light can be used to significantly improve the performance of fuel cells, lithium batteries and other devices that are based on the movement of charged atoms, or ions.

Charge can be carried through a material in different ways. We are most familiar with the charge that is carried by the electrons that help make up an atom. Light has long been used to excite electrons to make them more conductive. Common applications include solar cells, and even supermarket doors that automatically open when a customer passes through. The latter rely on sensors in the door activated by the infrared radiation—light—naturally emitted by the customer.

"But there are many devices that depend on the motion of the ions themselves rather than just their constituent electrons," says Harry L. Tuller, the R.P. Simmons Professor of Ceramics and Electronic Materials in MIT's Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). Examples include , which depend on the movement of lithium ions during battery charge and discharge. Similarly, fuel cells depend on the movement of hydrogen and oxygen ions to create electricity.

Tuller co-led the current work with Jennifer L. M. Rupp, an MIT Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and an Associate Professor of Solid-State Electrolyte Chemistry at Technical University Munich in Germany.

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