Why Government-Sponsored Research Is Vitally Important: The 1st Battery Breakthrough Story Of 2018

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Researchers at Northwestern University say they may be on the verge of a breakthrough in battery chemistry. Their discovery would lead to lower-cost batteries, but that’s not the exciting part. If they are correct, their new lithium-iron-oxygen batteries would quadruple the range of electric cars. And that, my friends, is when the trajectory of the electric car revolution goes ballistic.

Iron Oxygen battery
The battery uses both oxygen and iron to store and release electrical energy. Credit: Zhenpeng Yao

You might need to be a chemistry jock to grasp all the details of the new discovery, but it boils down to this: where current lithium-ion batteries operate by a one-to-one exchange of ions between lithium and another element — typically cobalt — the new battery liberates 4 lithium ions. Do the math — 4 times as many ions equals 4 times as much electricity flowing.

Now, I have a confession to make. I often confuse megawatts with gigawatts, bits with bytes, and joules with newton meters. I failed organic chemistry. Twice, in fact. So, I am going to let the scientists involved in this research speak for themselves. But, before we do that, a shout out to the US Department of Energy, whose Energy Frontier Research Center program made this research possible. The EFRC supports research programs at 36 sites in 35 states. On its home page, it describes its mission this way:

“The Office of Basic Energy Sciences in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science established the Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) program, to accelerate such transformative discovery, combining the talents and creativity of our national scientific workforce with a powerful new generation of tools for penetrating, understanding, and manipulating matter on the atomic and molecular scales.”

The full research report was published by the journal Nature Energy on December 8, 2017. Lead authors are Christopher Wolverton, professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering; Zhenpeng Yao, a PhD student in Wolverton’s laboratory; and Chun Zhan, a postdoctoral fellow at Argonne National Laboratory.

“In the conventional case, the transition metal [usually cobalt] is doing the reaction,” Wolverton says. “Because there is only one lithium ion per one cobalt. That limits how much charge can be stored.” His team used advanced computer modeling to figure out how to use iron in place of cobalt. Iron is plentiful and cheap. They also learned how to incorporate oxygen in the process.

Typically, in a so-called air battery, oxygen is vented to the atmosphere and needs to be replenished. “The problem previously was that often, if you tried to get oxygen to participate in the reaction, the compound would become unstable,” Yao says. “Oxygen would be released from the battery, making the reaction irreversible.” Through their computer modeling, the team figured out the right combination of lithium, iron, and oxygen to make the process reversible.

“Not only does the battery have an interesting chemistry because we’re getting electrons from both the metal and oxygen, but we’re using iron,” Wolverton says. “That has the potential to make a better battery that is also cheap. Four lithium ions for each metal — that would change everything. That means that your phone could last eight times longer or your car could drive eight times farther. If battery powered cars can compete with or exceed gasoline-powered cars in terms of range and cost, that will change the world.”

Now, don’t run out and sell your gasmobile quite yet (well, unless you’re ready for one of the dozens of electric vehicles on the market). “Our computational prediction of this battery reaction is very exciting, but without experimental confirmation there would be a lot of skeptics,” acknowledges Wolverton. Using oxygen in a reversible model is something long thought to be impossible. “The fact that it actually works is remarkable.”

Much hard work remains to be done to make the team’s discovery commercially viable, the Northwestern University press release notes, but the prospect of less costly batteries with far more energy potential is exciting. In addition to pointing out the contribution of the Energy Frontier Research Center, I want to take a minute to point out something else I think is relevant.

I get a daily update in my news feed from Science Daily, and frequently the news reported there becomes the basis for stories on CleanTechnica. Over the past year, I have noticed something interesting. In the vast majority of the reports from Science Daily, the lead scientist and researchers have names that suggest their parents didn’t come over on the Mayflower.

In today’s story, for example, we have Zhenpeng Yao and Chun Zang. In the other 10 stories in today’s email, the following researchers are mentioned: Liang Dong, Sheng Huang, Mohan Wang, Kevin Chen, Anupama Lakshmanan, Arash Farhadi, Sripriya Ravindra Kumar, Suchita P. Nety, A. Shahmoradi, D.A. Hormuth, T.E. Yankeelov, L. Scarabosio, Johann Glück, Thomas M. Klapötke, Magdalena Rusan, Jesse J. Sabatini, Jörg Stierstorfer, Jinyi Qi, Ramsey D. Badawi, Yi Ding, Meng Cai, Zhigang Cui, Leilei Huang, Lei Wang, Xinhua Lu, Yuanli Cai, Alex Gavryushkin, and Niko Beerenwinkel.

I am grateful that the editor of CleanTechnica, Zachary Shahan, gives me free rein to express myself on matters that may not pertain directly to clean technology but which I feel are relevant, if only tangentially so. The current administration has declared war on immigrants. People coming to the United States today — including citizens — may be required to let immigration officials peruse their emails and social media accounts. The latest twist is a deliberate plan to separate parents from their children at the border while officials probe for any hint of politically incorrect thinking that does not align with the perverse ravings of the psychopath who is currently America’s chief executive.

In a survey conducted in 2017, 40% of colleges and universities reported they are getting fewer applications for admission from foreign students. To be fair, a third reported an increase and the rest reported no change. But the message is clear. With xenophobia rampant at the highest levels of government, many people who once thought about pursuing higher education in the US are looking elsewhere. There is no way to accurately measure how much America will lose by not having these people here.

Demonizing foreigners is an easy thing to do. We are in many ways engineered, sadly, to hate those who don’t look like us, think like us, speak like us, worship like us, or dress like us. It is also a sign of a weak society, one that is headed not for greatness but irrelevance. The #FakePresident thumps his chest repeatedly about creating jobs for Americans. He means white Americans and clearly has not the slightest concept of how vital the efforts of immigrants are to the national economy.

Today, we have Zhenpeng Yao and Chun Zang, as well as Christopher Wolverton, to thanks for pioneering research that could have significant implications for building a carbon free future. But the odds are good that in coming years people like them will choose to do their life’s work in other countries. Our current assault on immigrants is short sighted and will harm American interests in the long run. Unfortunately, few in Washington are able to see beyond the next election cycle, or — in the case of Trump — around his hyperinflated ego.

Be careful what you wish for, America. You just might get it.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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