As the land-grant university for the energy-rich state of Pennsylvania, it isnât surprising that Penn State counts among its core strengths a broad and deep expertise in energy-related research. Today, in areas from materials science to policy, from environmental chemistry to architectural and electrical engineering, the range and quality of our research make Penn State a world leader in energy research.
We’ve produced a package of five stories that capture just a sliver of that expertise, briefly sampling some of the more innovative ideas of Penn State researchers working together to solve key questions of making and using energy.
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Generating energyâtapping natural processes to power our future
Catching carbonânew technology to capture CO2 before it gets into the atmosphere and either sequester it or use it to create new products
The built environmentâhow new inventions and design principles are making our buildings and appliances more energy-efficient
Pulling it all togetherâintegrating new sources of energy with the traditional electric grid to provide reliable, sustainable power for homes and businesses
âThe beauty of batteries is you donât have to think about them,â says Chris Rahn, a mechanical engineer whose research focuses on battery systems. Rahn drives an electric car to work and has solar panels on his home. âWhen I make my daily commute, Iâm not burning any fossil fuels,â he says. âItâs amazing that you can have the sun shine on a panel on your house, charge the battery in your car with that solar energy, and then drive. Itâs revolutionary.â
The past few years have brought a surge in battery technology. Hereâs a sampling of how Penn State researchers are changing the battery landscape.
TIME TO RECHARGE
Lithium-ion batteries came on the scene in the late 1990s and soon became ubiquitous. Used to power devices such as laptops and smartphones, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are popular because theyâre lightweight, store a lot of energy, and can run for a long time.Â
Despite the advantages of lithium-ion batteries, they donât handle high temperatures well and occasionally burst into flames. âSafety is an issue whenever you have high-energy-density batteries,â explains engineer Chao-Yang Wang. âWhen a lot of energy in a small volume is released all at once, thatâs a problem.â Yangâs lab works at the materials and cell level on the thermal management of batteries, designing less flammable materials.Â
They recently received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to work on fast charging of electric car batteries and have developed a technology that allows car batteries to be charged within ten minutes. âYou can then drive 250 miles on that charge,â he says. âYes, thatâs a limited range, but you can charge up again in the few minutes it takes to get a cup of coffee and check your messages.â Because it can be charged so quickly, it can be smaller than electric vehicle batteries currently in useâwhich makes it safer as well.
START ME UP
Wang and his colleagues have also developed a battery that wonât freeze in cold climates, a feature that could make the use of electric vehicles more widespread. Like conventional car batteries, current electric vehicle batteries work poorly in extreme cold. They take hours to charge, and even when fully charged, they may not be able to start the car because the movement of ions within the battery slows down significantly.Â
The new all-climate car battery warms itself up, allowing it to charge fast or promptly start the car no matter the outside temperature. The remote key used to unlock the car doors âcould also trigger the pre-heat switch,â says Wang, âand by the time the person sits on the driverâs seat, some seconds later, the battery has already warmed up and is ready to drive awayââeven at ambient temperatures as low as minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit.Â
BETTER POLYMERS FOR BIGGER BATTERIES
Materials scientist Mike Hickner and his group work at a molecular level to make better large-scale batteriesâthose that power buildings, water treatment plants, and neighborhoods.Â
In these flow batteries, a polymer membrane separates the anode and the cathode to allow ions to flow back and forth during charging and discharging, while ensuring the active redox molecules are not lost. Hickner uses polymer chemistry to modify the membraneâs transport properties, designing next-generation membranes in iterative testing with cell engineers. âWe like to send samples out and have the battery engineers break them and help us improve our materials,â says Hickner. âThis back-and-forth is a real competitive advantage for my group.â
Hickner and his group are also beginning to explore using 3D printing technology to create battery membranes. â3D printing allows us to make unusual shapes and make them quickly,â he says. âIn my lab, we have people who know about molecules, and we have students interested in 3D printing, so we can integrate ideas from different disciplines.â
INTO THE FUTURE
These latest advances are just the beginning of smart batteries,â Rahn says. âOn the horizon is a whole new world of batteries that can live a long time, operate at all temperatures, and charge quickly. When it comes to car batteries, this will eliminate what we call ârange anxietyââfear that your car battery will run out before you can recharge. In fact, one day we might see drivers of gasoline-powered cars having range anxiety because gas stations will be disappearing.â
Yang agrees that battery technology will change the future. âBefore long, and itâs already starting, weâll have battery-powered robots working diligently, cleaning the house, doing laundry, cooking for us, transporting people.âÂÂ
THE BEST CENTER: FROM MATERIALS TO SYSTEMS
The multidisciplinary Battery Energy Storage Technology (BEST) Center brings together researchers from across the University who look at battery technology at all levels, from materials to power cells to systems, and collaborate on new approaches.
âThe work we do at BEST leads to real-world impact,â Rahn says. He and Chao-Yang Wang direct the BEST Center. âIf youâre a materials person and demonstrate something on a small scale, you always wonder, can we scale up? Can we make this into a commercial product? So, for example, after Chao-Yang builds a good cell, he turns it over to me and I assemble it into a system. We have the whole chain here to test out any idea.â
âAs a one-stop-shop, the BEST Center is unique. Weâre always talking to each other. We couldnât do these things by ourselves.â
Chris Rahn isÂ J. âLeeâ Everett Professor of Mechanical Engineering, co-director of the BEST Center, and associate dean for innovation in the College of Engineering at Penn State.Â Chao-Yang Wang is Professor andÂ Diefenderfer Chair of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, andÂ co-director of the BEST Center.Â Michael Hickner isÂ Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical Engineering, and Corning Faculty Fellow.
This story first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue ofÂ Research/Penn StateÂ magazine.