Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Veronica Augustyn, an assistant professor in NC State’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. This is one of a series of posts from NC State researchers that address the value of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
If you want to build a cell-phone battery as thin as paper that powers your phone for a week, or have an electric vehicle like the Tesla go 500 miles on a single charge and recharge in just 10 minutes, you will have to start thinking small – small as the atoms that determine the energy storage mechanisms and lifetimes in batteries.
In the field of materials science and engineering, we have been thinking at this scale for some time – understanding and then engineering the atoms that make up the tangible world around us.
In my group, we work with materials that function in energy storage and conversion devices that include batteries and fuel cells. In these devices, materials can face a host of challenges, such as highly corrosive environments and large mechanical deformation.
While the manufacturers are working at a furious pace to continually improve lithium-ion batteries, we are thinking beyond lithium ion to materials and energy storage mechanisms that are not yet ready for commercialization. One area of research in my group, currently funded by the National Science Foundation, is to investigate whether very fast energy storage can be enabled by the presence of nanoscale water layers inside a material.
We are working with a model system of tungsten oxide that is quite heavy, but provides the ideal structure for investigating our hypothesis. The fundamental understanding obtained from our lab has tremendous potential for commercial applications, but that is not necessarily the most important result of our research. One could argue that the most important product we produce is the next generation of scientists and engineers.
In our group, undergraduate and graduate students become trained on materials synthesis, materials characterization, and electrochemical characterization. These students then go on to work in industry, national laboratories and other universities. So whether you want a battery to store energy from a solar cell; an emission-free (and super fast and quiet) electric vehicle; or to stop having to constantly charge your cell phone – research matters!