An MSU research team led by Lee Spangler, the MSU Energy Research Institute Director, has been awarded $3.5 million from the Army Research Lab for battery development. The team’s goal is to create new advancements in energy storage.

The researchers are looking at a new way of developing a battery that will increase charge capacity and speed and is less prone to shortages. Another issue the team has been tasked with is creating a design that will withstand the rough conditions seen in military field operations. While the primary applications are for the military, “a pretty large fraction of what we make will make its way into the private sector,” Spangler said.

The team is made up of MSU scientists from a wide variety of fields. Members include Rob Walker, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Stephen Sofie, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and Steven Shaw, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, among many others. Other universities apart from MSU are also contributing to the project including the University of Maryland, the University of Texas and Stony Brook University. Several private companies are working on the project as well.

The MSU team’s prior experience working in the field of fuel cells has given them an advantage on the project. Fuel cells, like batteries, use the chemical energy of a fuel source to produce electricity. Sofie, who has researched and developed fuel cells at NASA, believes his free-casted ceramic material will prove equally efficient for batteries. 

Sofie described the process: “I take a slurry, which is these lithium ion-conducting ceramics in water and I freeze them. But I freeze them directionally from the bottom up. I don’t put them in the freezer. I put them on the cold bed so it’s warm on top, cold on the bottom and ice crystals grow through the material. When these ice crystals grow, they exclude the ceramics. You have these ice crystals that are essentially pure water with these ceramic struts that are next to them. Then I freeze-dry it, sublime the ice and it leaves these beautiful pore channels that go from the bottom all the way to the top.” The pores are then filled with anode and cathode material.

As a result of this design, these new solid-state batteries can hold more charge and charge faster. The ceramic material is also more resilient than the liquid and plastic membrane structures of traditional batteries. 

The $3.5 million grant will allow the researchers to purchase more equipment and hire more staff. Sofie’s laboratory will be acquiring a device capable of particle atomic layer deposition that will help improve his freeze-casting process. 

Both Spangler and Sofie believe the project will prove beneficial for undergraduates. “We have great opportunities for undergraduates to get involved with the research,” Sofie said. The grant will also help support a handful of graduate students and postdoctoral students participate in battery research.

The project and grant come at a great time for MSU. The college hopes to leverage its experience with fuel cells to breakthrough into the battery field. “We think this project will launch MSU into being a leader in solid-state battery research,” Sofie said. The project is still in its initial stages and will be a part of MSU for the foreseeable future.