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Materials Science Tackles World's Energy Challenges

Mechanical Engineering Professor Arumugam “Ram” Manthiram is a world-renowned expert in materials science and widely regarded for developing low-cost electrode materials for lithium-ion batteries.

Mechanical Engineering Professor Arumugam "Ram" Manthiram is a world-renowned expert in materials science and widely regarded for developing low-cost electrode materials for lithium-ion batteries.

On the ninth floor of the Engineering Teaching Center building at The University of Texas at Austin, Danielle Applestone is testing new anode materials to see how they perform against commercial batteries used in laptops and cellphones.

Applestone, a doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering at the Cockrell School of Engineering, developed the new alloy anodes and, so far, they show potential to outperform mainstream batteries that employ carbon-based anodes and are found in lithium-ion batteries used in many electronic devices.

At this moment, she faces an exciting and also daunting venture: three of her materials compositions are being licensed, and she plans to form a startup when she graduates next semester with the sole purpose of moving the materials from the lab to large-scale production.

Danielle Applestone

Danielle Applestone

Luckily for her, when she needs advice or guidance on her research or startup plan, she is at the right place. One floor above her is the office of Mechanical Engineering Professor John Goodenough, the very person who identified and developed the oxide cathode materials now used worldwide for high energy-density rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, ubiquitous in today's portable electronic devices.

Next door to Goodenough is Applestone's faculty adviser, Arumugam "Ram" Manthiram. A world-renowned expert in materials science – who is entrepreneurially minded with his own startup – Manthiram is widely regarded in his field for developing low-cost electrode materials for lithium-ion batteries.

"I feel I have a major advantage over students at other universities because anytime I have a question, I can just walk into their offices and ask for guidance from the people who basically wrote the book on the materials science aspects of lithium-ion batteries," said Applestone, a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Because of the research track record and the chance to learn from world experts in this field, it was really a no brainer for me to come here."

Thanks to unparalleled expertise brought by professors like Goodenough and Manthiram, the materials science and engineering program at the Cockrell School of Engineering has established itself as one of the strongest in the world.

The program brings together renowned engineers, physicists and chemists, among others, to invent and enhance products ranging from large-scale machinery to cell phones, solar cells and nanomaterials that help heal the human body.

"Much of modern technology that we enjoy these days is due to the development of advanced materials. Without it, you can't build anything," Manthiram said. "And the nature of materials science is that it is really interdisciplinary – it can't be done with engineering alone or physics/chemistry alone."

At the center of this research is the Texas Materials Institute (TMI), a campus-based consortium led by Manthiram that brings together the most creative technical minds from the Cockrell School of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences.

Professor John Goodenough

Professor John Goodenough

Last month, researchers with the institute were awarded an approximately $3 million competitive grant from the National Science Foundation to study the physics and chemistry involved in controlling the properties of transition-metal oxides, a complex class of materials essential for many modern technologies.

The grant, known as the Materials Interdisciplinary Research Team (MIRT) grant, is among one of many awarded to TMI and it serves as another testament to the strength of materials science research at the university.

"We have a strong track record here in the basic science and engineering of materials," Manthiram said. "And we're making sure it continues."

Securing energy

It is early afternoon, and in Manthiram's ninth floor office there are constant reminders of the research challenges he's solved and the ones that still need to be solved.

His cell phone and laptop, for instance, are powered by batteries, which he and other faculty seek to make cheaper, safer, longer lasting, capable of storing more energy and of charging faster than what's currently possible.

The sunlight shining in his office is also a reminder.

"It's a beautiful day out," he says looking out his window. "The sun is bright, but by 7 or 8 p.m., it's gone. So if we're trying to use electricity produced by solar energy, what do we do after the sun goes down or when it is cloudy? We need an efficient and economical way of storing the electricity we produce from the sunlight during the day so that we can use it for electricity later."

If that energy could be easily stored, one of the biggest hurdles to reliable alternative energy would be solved, and electricity from solar and wind power could charge batteries in electronics and electric vehicles, among other uses.

Manthiram, along with faculty and students at the Cockrell School and the College of Natural Sciences, are working to make these scenarios a reality by designing and developing low cost, more efficient materials that can facilitate widespread commercialization of clean energy technologies, such as fuel cells, solar cells, high energy density batteries and supercapacitors to address the world's energy and environmental challenges.

The researchers' greatest strength is in developing the next generation of lithium-ion batteries – one in which solar and wind power can be stored, batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles are lightweight, affordable and safe, and batteries for electronics store more energy and can be used longer before they need to be charged.

The biggest bottleneck to doing so, however, is figuring out which types of materials and chemicals most optimize a battery's performance. Batteries, after all, convert stored chemical energy into electrical energy using only three major components: an anode, cathode and electrolyte.

Professor Adam Heller

Professor Adam Heller

Lithium-ion batteries invariably use a carbon-based anode, but batteries with this material suffer from a plating of metallic lithium, causing them to occasionally short and even explode.

To avoid this, and significantly enhance the amount of energy batteries store, the researchers are developing new and improved anode and cathode materials for lithium-ion batteries.

"There was a big transformation in electronics because of materials science, and now we expect it will cause a big transformation in the energy field," Manthiram said.

Among the materials being researched are iron oxide, graphite, sulfur and manganese cobalt oxide.

Chemical engineering Professors Adam Heller and Buddie Mullins have developed an anode material made of iron oxide, or rust, that charges more quickly and has a longer lifespan than batteries currently being used in electric or hybrid vehicles.

Mullins is also leading research into the discovery and characterization of electrode materials for lithium-ion batteries, and Heller is leading fundamental research on the organization of conducting binders.

"They've been overlooked in materials science but as it turns out, their organization makes a huge difference in battery performance," Heller said. "If the particles are nicely aligned (rather than clustered), electricity can go through them faster. Their composition is the same, but the organization is much more efficient."

Building off success

Among the research success already occurring, the university entered into an agreement earlier this year with Canada-based Hydro-Quebec for lithium-ion material technology invented and patented by Goodenough.

The agreement brings a significant upfront payment to the university and will provide future royalties and additional payments, which can't be disclosed under the agreement.

Goodenough's research resulted in an innovative and powerful cathode material useful in rechargeable batteries. The material enables batteries that are safe, lighter and longer lasting.

Batteries developed in Manthiram's lab.

Batteries developed in Manthiram's lab.

Cockrell School faculty were also among two research groups at The University of Texas at Austin awarded grants earlier this month to develop technologies that could dramatically improve energy storage capacity on the electric grid.

The grants, awarded by Stanford University's Global Climate and Energy Project, went to renowned chemist and College of Natural Sciences Professor Allen Bard and Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Jeremy Meyers, among others, whose research is focused on enhanced electrolyte energy storage systems.

Their research seeks to introduce transformative changes in the construction and composition of the redox flow battery, a promising but so-far expensive technology that stores electrical energy as chemical energy like a battery does, but can be made large enough to store energy for the electric utility grid. Large-scale energy storage is needed in order to maximize the amount of energy generation from solar and wind sources.

And a team led by Mechanical Engineering Professor Rodney Ruoff recently developed a novel form of three-dimensional carbon that can be used as a greatly enhanced supercapacitor, holding promise for energy storage in the electric grid, electric cars and electronics.

Similarly to batteries, supercapacitors store electric charge and they are able to deliver energy much faster and more efficiently than batteries, but usually hold much less electrical charge.

Passing the torch to the next generation

For students like Applestone, having a wealth of expertise in materials science and engineering is invaluable to her education and time here. More than that, she’s developed mentors at the university who encouraged her when times were difficult.

Applestone, a single mom with a six-year-old son, had to put off her doctorate degree twice because it was too hard to juggle parenting, school and running a software company, which she founded prior to joining the university and used to help fund her education.

"If it was not for Professor Manthiram, I wouldn't be finishing. He is the Holy Grail of professors because he's not only insanely successful, he has a lot of integrity and cares about his students," Applestone said. "Somehow he's able to have 25 students, yet everyone feels taken care of. He's really proof that you can be a good teacher and do very productive research."

For faculty, like Manthiram, Goodenough and Mullins, being able to inspire a student to tackle research – especially research that is as complicated as finding energy solutions – is as important to them as the life-changing research they perform daily.

"We want to graduate really talented students that go out and make big contributions," Mullins said. "If we do that, that will be our biggest contribution."