Leading the charge on a new frontier of battery innovation

By Justin Berry | Posted - Feb 18th, 2013 @ 11:33am

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SALT LAKE CITY — Batteries have become an essential part of everyday life, but they have their positives and negatives. Researchers at the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative are seeking to minimize the negatives and innovate the positives by leading the charge on a new frontier of batteries.

Powering Lives

Batteries have definitely made a positive impact on everyday life, and in many cases we all depend on batteries to help get on with our day. While on the surface all types of modern technologies have revolutionized the economy, healthcare and society, from cell phone batteries, TV remotes, watches, flashlights, garage door openers, and now battery powered cars, batteries are an almost constant part of our daily lives. Additionally, batteries have powered medical innovations that have dramatically improved the quality of life for many with pacemakers, hearing aids, and insulin pumps.

While essential, batteries also can have their disadvantages. The downside we are most familiar with is a battery that simply doesn't hold a charge, and over time, stops working, overheats, leaks and even (in rare cases) explodes. More importantly, the makeup of batteries can be of major concern. Specifically, batteries contain many chemicals that are corrosive, poisonous, and difficult to dispose of properly. Lastly, while the phone or flashlight batteries are small and convenient, most large-capacity batteries are currently very bulky, limiting their adoption.

USTAR has two innovative research teams working to "empower" the positives while mitigating the negatives of batteries. The teams represent Utah State University's USTAR Advanced Transportation Institute and the University of Utah's Alternative and Renewable Energy research team. Both of these research teams are focused on the future development of battery technology and bio-inspired batteries.


Exploring Green Battery Technology

Shelley Minteer, USTAR researcher and professor of chemistry and materials science & engineering at the U of U, leads the Alternative and Renewable Energy research team focusing on biological or greener battery technology.

"Traditional batteries are typically metallic batteries. These batteries contain metal that we typically mine or other forms of extraction from the environment, so they are not fabricated from renewable resources. The batteries convert the chemical energy in the metal into electrical energy. However, this is not a sustainable process, because we only have so much metal on earth and these batteries are not biodegradable," said Minteer. "Many of the batteries we have now in the market contain toxic materials and unfortunately in the U.S., many people throw them away in landfills, instead of recycling them. So we are ending up with these metals and toxins in our landfills, which can contaminate our water supply."

According to Call2Recycle, a national battery recycling non-profit, Americans throw away an estimated 3 billion batteries, equaling up to 250 million pounds each year.

"In order to develop a sustainable solution, there needs to be an alternative strategy for energy conversion other than metals," Minteer said. She envisions batteries as more like natural living system. The Alternative and Renewable Energy research team is working to develop a battery based onmetabolism of sorts, a ‘bio-inspired' battery as Minteer describes it.

The bio-battery would focus on harnessing the energy conversion of living cells for energy storage devices removing the need for unsustainable metallic-based batteries. The batteries, or fuel cells, would not need to be ‘plugged in' to be recharged; you would just simply add more fuel to them.

USTAR professor Regan Zane (left) with Daniel Costinett, a USU visiting scholar and instructor, working on a 4kW bidirectional power converter. Courtesy: USU College of Engineering

Refining Battery Performance

While Minteer and her team are focusing on changing the foundational structure of the battery, USU's Regan Zane is concentrating on battery efficiency for use in transportation applications at the USTAR Advanced Transportation Institute. Zane is also a professor for the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and in 2012 helped form the USU Power Electronics Lab.

Zane's research focuses on a range of battery related activities including electric vehicles and electric drivetrains, integration of renewable energy sources and development of high performance power conversion for military and aerospace applications.

Zane's concentration on battery efficiency stems from the fact that large batteries used in electric vehicles are made up of many smaller ‘cells' that are expensive, heavy and do not hold a charge as effectively as might be hoped. The UATI and UPEL research is focused on ways to get electric vehicles on par with their gas-powered predecessors and make those forebears a thing of the past.

"There is a wide range of variability among cells in batteries," Zane said. "If we can better utilize the battery and expand its usable operating range, we can improve the battery performance and reduce the cost of the battery pack making vehicles less expensive."

Recently, Zane in collaboration with research centers throughout the country was awarded a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy that will focus on improving battery performance. The research hopes to find efficiencies through controlling and monitoring each cell individually. His research also has the support of a public-private partnership with the Ford Motor Company, a partnership that USTAR seeks to foster and grow.

Zane predicts his research could reduce the cost of electric batteries by as much as 20 percent and would dramatically change not only the economics behind electric and hybrid vehicles, but also the future of transportation around the world.

Powering the Future

From innovations in size, shape, quality, capacity and foundational structure of batteries, the future of battery technology development is promising. Many innovations that were unthinkable decades past are not commonplace in everyday life because of batteries. These innovations require not only leveraging our state's institutions and amazing researchers, but also the commitment to research to promote the commercialization of those technologies. In this case, battery innovation may very well fuel the future and USTAR's researchers are at the forefront of the field in making this a reality both in theory and in practice.


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