Researchers from Montana State University (MSU) are presently undertaking ongoing research in the development and testing of lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) that use a unique ceramic material to substitute the plastic membrane and liquid electrolyte (LE) that are susceptible to damage and fire. The development of this technology is part of a $10 million initiative with universities, national labs, and leading industry players combining their efforts to push it forward. Recently, MSU was awarded $3.5 million to continue and further develop its battery material research.

 

Researcher Rob Walker (far left) with students in his lab. Image used courtesy of MSU 
Researcher Rob Walker (far left) with students in his lab. Image used courtesy of MSU 

 

 

Today, battery storage and power research is growing exponentially to meet the demand for technologies required to support the smart grid, electric vehicles (EVs), charging stations, fast-charging electronic consumables, and the micro-technologies that constitute such devices. LIBs are the known standard for current power and storage devices, however, they are not yet at optimum efficiency and even incur certain safety risks. This is particularly the case for LIBs that use LEs because their inherent volatility and flammability can lead to circuit shorting and potentially fires. 

 

The Funding

The Army Research Lab awarded the MSU research team $3.5 million to develop next-generation batteries with fast charging capabilities, greater power, stability and safety, and more resilience to harsh environmental conditions. The research is hoped to help soldiers in military field operations that need batteries that charge fast in pressurized conditions and that can withstand challenging conditions in the field. Not is only the technology generated from the research expected to be beneficial for the military, but for consumer products as well. 

In a recent news release, MSU Energy Research Institute Director Lee Spangler commented on the research standing of MSU and the funding: “MSU has some unique capabilities that we’ve developed over the past couple decades of researching fuel cells.” Spangler added: “It’s exciting to be applying that expertise to batteries, and this funding is going to accelerate our research in this area.”

In the same news release, Professor at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in MSU’s College of Letters and Science, Rob Walker, said “Personnel working on this project will be well-positioned to become leaders in the rapidly growing field of energy storage and conversion.” He also expressed his firm belief that the project is “a tremendous opportunity” for MSU alumni. The funding will be helping to support 11 graduate students and six postdoctoral or similar research positions.

 

Research Methodology

Professor at the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, Stephan Sofie, explained that the ceramic used to develop fuel cells is equally advantageous for use in solid-state-batteries (SSBs). Sofie added: “The ceramics will never catch fire and create a safety hazard and are capable of better performance than lithium batteries filled with flammable liquid.”

Sofie will be using a method known as freeze casting to create the ceramic material. This method was developed by Sofie at NASA and has been refined over the years at MSU. With this method, ceramic particles and water are poured onto a cold surface to create ice crystals. This process is done in a precise manner to generate crystals of a specific structure. These crystals are then freeze-dried to make a thin, porous membrane.

 

Professor Stephan Sofie. Image used courtesy of MSU 
Professor Stephan Sofie. Image used courtesy of MSU 

 

Walker and his research group will be using optical spectroscopy to examine changes in the ceramic materials at temperatures over 1,800oF. “We’ll be able to know exactly how the battery material changes and correlate that with battery performance,” said Walker. 

Other critical researchers of the MSU team will be looking at other aspects of the project. This includes the development of graphite- and silicon-based materials for the battery electrodes. Additionally, smaller versions of the ceramic-based batteries will be made to work on optimal charge and power. Lastly, investigations will be conducted looking at enhancing charging speed while reducing battery degradation and overheating.

The overall goal for the MSU researchers is to one day produce a new battery technology that can be manufactured at scale for widespread use.


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