The University of Texas at Austin (UT) has been a leader in battery and energy storage research since the late John Goodenough, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the UT Cockrell School of Engineering, helped invent the lithium-ion battery. Goodenough leaves behind big shoes to fill; however, his successors — over 30 researchers backed by dozens of students — are more than up to the challenge.
Energizing Everyday Life
Modern life is battery-powered, with everything from aircraft to electric vehicles to the device you’re reading this on running on the modern-day coppertop battery. While cellular and vehicle technology has grown by leaps and bounds, battery technology hasn’t changed much since the development of lightweight rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.
The Problem Is Material
Extracting and processing battery materials, like cobalt, takes an incredible toll on the environment and human health. Cobalt extraction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which possesses half of the world’s cobalt reserves, has led to widespread deforestation and polluted waterways. Worse yet is the degrading, toxic conditions workers encounter.
Teams of researchers and students at UT Austin are working for a future in which people have safe, reliable and sustainably sourced batteries. “Cobalt is a problem today, nickel is a problem tomorrow, and lithium could become a problem a day after tomorrow,” said Dr. Arumugam Manthiram, professor with the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering and head of the Manthiram Laboratory.
The Search for “Unobtanium”
In their quest for alternative battery materials, UT Austin researchers are essentially searching for “unobtanium”: a term used by engineers — and characters in James Cameron’s “Avatar” — to describe an as-of-yet undiscovered material with an ideal set of properties. The thing is, they may have found it.
Sodium may be a viable alternative to lithium and cobalt, according to research published in 2021 by Professor David Mitlin, Ph.D., and his team at UT Austin’s Applied Research Laboratories (ARL:UT). The team developed a promising sodium-based anode material that charges as quickly as a lithium-ion battery.
Coincidentally, the Manthiram Laboratory had a breakthrough with cobalt-free lithium-ion batteries that very same year. Both Mitlin and Manthiram proposed batteries that rely on sodium, a cheap and abundant resource. “A lot of exciting things are happening right now, but everything is incremental,” said Professor Manthiram. “There’s no magic technology that will change the world in the next one, two, or five years.”
Despite this realistic long-term perspective, there’s another, more time-sensitive motivation spurring UT researchers in their search for lithium battery alternatives: safety.
Energy Storage Research at the Atomic Level
Lithium-ion batteries are normally safe, so long as they’re not damaged. When they are damaged, they have the unfortunate tendency to catch fire. This makes testing speculative technology a tad nerve-wracking, unless of course you leverage the super-computing power of the Texas Advanced Computing Center.
Dr. Don Sigel, professor and department chair for the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering, uses computational techniques to see how hundreds of alternative materials will perform at the atomic level. It’s trial and error, and it’s only a matter of time before the next big discovery. “With computation we can predict how a new material will perform before it is synthesized and tested,” said Professor Siegel. “That leads to major time savings. One could even file a patent application based on the computed predictions.”
The Problem of Thermal Runaway
Lithium-ion battery fires are on the rise in New York, San Francisco, and other cities. Worse yet, these fires release toxic fumes while burning hotter and longer, leaving many firefighters without an answer.
UT Fire Research Group is working to change that. Led by Dr. Ofodike Ezekoye, director of our 100% online MS in mechanical engineering program, the group studies lithium-ion battery fires in the hopes of solving the problem of thermal runaway: a chain reaction that starts with battery cells heating and bursting and, in rare cases, ends in an inferno.
“Within these cells, you have the perfect recipe for disaster — fuel, oxygen and heat, all self-contained,” said Professor Ezekoye. Collaborating with material researchers, Professor Ezekoye and the UT Fire Research Group are helping to ensure that future battery technology is as safe as it is essential for powering our smartphones, tablets and electric vehicles.
Energize Your Career With UT Austin’s Help
Professor Mitlin summed up UT’s electrifying passion for battery and energy storage research when he said, “Everybody is on the same page — that batteries are an important priority here — so it’s fairly joyous operating because you know the wind is at your sails.” If you share our interest in battery materials and mechanical engineering, we have an online program for you.
UT Austin’s 100% online MS in mechanical engineering program is designed for professionals like you who want to influence the future of engineering. Online courses like Materials Science and Engineering provide specialized knowledge essential to battery science and all industries where mechanical engineering leaders are needed. Rigorous and entirely online, our program offers everything you need to advance your career.
Check out our Program page to learn more. If you’re ready to energize your career, apply to our 100% online MS in mechanical engineering program. The skills you’ll learn in our program, like batteries, are needed everywhere.