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Scientists earn grant for battery research

A grant from the U. S. Departmetn of Energy will fund research helping USU scientists create batteries with longer lives./MCT photoUSU engineers will be working on making batteries with longer life thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

According to a statement released Monday, USU has received a $3 million federal grant, part of $43 million given to 12 groups and organizations nationwide. The U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency created the grant to develop new ways of storing energy.

The other groups sharing the grant  include the University of Colorado and the Ford Motor Company, both of whom will be doing the actual battery testing.

Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) Professor Regan Zane of USU's electrical and computer engineering department said the grant is important because it extends beyond just the department itself.

There are many benefits in energy storage and increasing the usefulness of batteries. This also certainly raises the visibility of our program. We plan to fund undergraduates, engage students in research and help develop educational programs, Zane said.

Zane said this project is unique because of the unique roles of each of the organizations spread across the country. He said all of them have specific strengths that can be applied and each location will be working on a different component of the project. 

Here in Utah, we'll be focusing on power converters - electronics that we put together with the batteries, Zane said. That's what makes this whole thing work.

The application for the grant was started in April and was submitted near the end of May. It was kind of a multistep process, Zane said.

Zane said this is not the first time the team members have done this type of work before. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory's research engineer Kandler Smith wrote his Ph.D. thesis on theoretical methods to control batteries to internal electrochemical constraints - the very idea that will be tested in the project.

These electrochemical control methods have great potential to expand the performance of lithium-ion batteries but have only been demonstrated theoretically so far, Smith said. It's exciting to have this opportunity with Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy to test them out on full-scale automotive batteries.

Smith said he's looking forward to being able to experiment with these theoretical ideas and hopefully the team will be able to get these advanced battery management systems on the market.  Any graduate student probably hopes that eventually, whatever it is they are studying can come to life someday, he said.

Mark McLellan, vice president for research at USU, sees the project as having a positive impact on the world and university.

We are very excited about this grant, McLellan said. Regan is a great researcher. He will be pushing limits on design for storage systems.

McLellan said due to Zane being a new hire, the research draws positive attention not only to the university itself but to USU faculty hires.

As a USTAR professor, we are excited about him being connected with a technology with great commercialization, McLellan said. There are big implications when large grants are achieved by faculty.

McLellan said he believes the university will definitely see more projects like this in the future. The project will likely elevate the school and faculty, which should then lead to doing more projects similar to this. 

We are excited about positioning faculty so they can be more successful. The more we can help faculty in that, the more resources we receive. We are actively trying to help many faculty, he said.

McLellan said more resources would mean more benefits to the university and students, including more teaching opportunities and a greater knowledge base among involved professors.

The research being done will benefit more than just the university.

The approach to (Zane's) research is to explore technologies and to implement very efficient batteries in large vehicles, he said.

Buses, trucks, and other large transportation vehicles could be greatly impacted by new, energy-efficient batteries. The project is a step forward in high energy needs research.

The grant really looks to the future, McLellan said.

McLellan isn't alone in thinking the project has great potential.

I think this research has the potential to be truly transformational, said Ph.D. graduate student Daniel Costinett. We have brought together some cutting-edge research and developments from multiple areas, which together promise to provide unprecedented advances in large battery packs.  

Costinett also said energy storage devices are a significant limiting factor in the acceptance of electric vehicles due to many factors, such as size, color and perhaps most importantly, energy capacity limitations.

This grant sponsors research specifically aimed to improve these limitations in the near term, with specific emphasis on aggressively bringing new technologies to market. In general, ARPA-E focuses on the rapid development of innovative technologies, Costinett said. I think that the grant is an excellent and much-needed motivator for the development of energy storage devices.

Source : Utah Statesman article