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‘Battery’ to the Future

by Angela Herring

When he was a kid, Mehmet Ates would take the dead bat­teries from his family’s appli­ances and crack them open with rocks in the back yard. “I wanted to figure out how they worked,” he said.

The stan­dard nickel-​​metal hydride bat­teries, how­ever left the future chemist dis­ap­pointed: once opened, they revealed nothing but a fine black powder.

Matthew Trahan never split open bat­teries, but he did have a strong appre­ci­a­tion for the out­doors and his envi­ron­ment. As a chem­istry stu­dent in Mis­souri he real­ized he wanted to change society by improving the tech­nolo­gies essen­tial to the devel­op­ment of elec­tric vehicles.

Today, Ates and Trahan, both grad­uate stu­dents in the same lab, are working with research pro­fessor K. M. Abraham to develop the next gen­er­a­tion of energy effi­cient lithium bat­teries. One of Ates’ child­hood bat­teries would have to be five to 20 times larger in order to store the same amount of energy as one of the teams’ exper­i­mental bat­teries, he explained.

Rec­og­nized with the phys­ical and life sci­ences award at the Research, Inno­va­tion, Schol­ar­ship, and Entre­pre­neur­ship expo ear­lier this year, the duo is working in two arms of Abraham’s lab. Ates is devel­oping a next-​​generation lithium-​​ion battery—a lithium rich ver­sion of the bat­teries that today power every­thing from cell phones to elec­tric vehi­cles. As the lightest ele­ment avail­able for bat­tery pro­duc­tion, lithium pro­vides an extremely effi­cient venue for energy storage. “One gram of lithium con­tains many more atoms”—the energy storing unit in the material—“than one gram of nickel,” explained Ates.

Com­mer­cial lithium-​​ion bat­teries cur­rently are com­posed of a lithi­ated graphite anode and a cobalt oxide cathode. Next gen­er­a­tion, “lithium rich” bat­teries, which research groups around the world are studying, use manganese-​​oxide instead. Abraham’s team is adding a metal com­pound to the system to increase the energy reten­tion capacity of this already-​​better bat­tery by 40 percent.

But still, even the best-​​case sce­nario for the lithium-​​rich bat­teries isn’t sat­is­fac­tory for Abraham. “My brother lives in Philadel­phia, 304 miles away,” he said. “That takes five or six hours to drive.” If he wants to drive an elec­tric car there today, he’d have to stop at least once during the trip to charge the vehicle—a process that can take many hours, he said.

In 1996, Abraham pub­lished a paper demon­strating a new kind of lithium bat­tery that uses plain old air as the cathode, instead of cobalt– or manganese-​​oxide. Nearly two decades, this is the bat­tery Trahan is working on now.

With increased gov­ern­ment pres­sure to develop clean energy alter­na­tives, people are finally real­izing the utility of the so-​​called lithium-​​air bat­tery. There is a world­wide effort to per­fect this bat­tery, capable of storing five to 10 times more energy than the lithium rich manganese-​​oxide bat­teries, and 20 times more energy than the stan­dard nickel-​​metal hydride battery.

“We are rev­o­lu­tion­izing lithium-​​ion and lithium air tech­nology,” Abraham said.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on June 6, 2013

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