Electrochemical cells based on alkali metal (Li, Na) anodes have attracted significant recent attention because of their promise for producing large increases in gravimetric energy density for energy storage in batteries. To facilitate stable, long-term operation of such cells a variety of structured electrolytes have been designed in different physical forms, ranging from soft polymer gels to hard ceramics, including nanoporous versions of these ceramics that host a liquid or molten polymer in their pores. In almost every case, the electrolytes are reported to be substantially more effective than anticipated by early theories in improving uniformity of deposition and lifetime of the metal anode. These observations have been speculated to reflect the effect of electrolyte structure in regulating ion transport to the metal electrolyte interface, thereby stabilizing metal electrodeposition processes at the anode. In this work, we create and study model structured electrolytes composed of covalently linked polymer grafted nanoparticles that host a liquid electrolyte in the pores. The electrolytes exist as freestanding membranes with effective pore size that can be systematically manipulated through straightforward control of the volume fraction of the nanoparticles. By means of physical analysis and direct visualization experiments using advanced optical microscopy, we report that at current densities approaching the diffusion limit, there is a clear transition from unstable to stable electrodeposition at Li metal electrodes in membranes with average pore sizes below 500 nm. We show that this transition is consistent with expectations from a recent theoretical analysis that takes into account local coupling between stress and ion transport at metal–electrolyte interfaces.
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