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MSU researchers team up with Army Research, national labs to develop 'stronger' batteries

Posted at 10:55 AM, Feb 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-01 12:55:07-05

Whether it is for laptops and electric cars or technology used by soldiers heading towards conflict, more and more, we are finding ourselves relying on batteries.

But they only last so long.

We all use batteries, including lithium-ion batteries, more than we think we do these days - with all of the portable electronics out there.

Reporters, who are included in that broad category, use them for their cameras.

It’s usually inconvenient when batteries decide to die.

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So the research study at MSU is looking to fix that.

“I’ve had my job for 25 years,” says Rob Walker, chemistry and biochemistry professor at MSU. “I’ve got the greatest job in the world.”

To Walker, who is also the director of Montana’s statewide Material Science Program, it’s a project that’s end goal could change the power-storage game for many, namely batteries.

“It leverages decades, collectively decades of experience studying energy conversion processes, formerly in fuel cells, and now applying them to new and emerging technologies,” Walker says. “The ultimate goal is to take discoveries here at Montana State and use that to guide fabrication and development of these next-generation batteries.”

It’s all a part of a $10 million effort, nationwide, including labs and universities across the country.

$3.5 million of that, from the Army Research Lab, came to MSU.

“We are making discoveries that no one has ever made before,” Walker says. “We are discovering new materials. We are learning new chemistries. That sense of discovery can’t be beat. These batteries have very high power densities and need to be able to operate in a whole host of conditions, including very cold and very hot.”

Lee Spangler, director of the Energy Research Institute at MSU, says that includes helping soldiers, who, on average, carry 10 pounds of batteries at a time and don’t have many options to charge them on the move.

Not to mention, if damaged, lithium-ion batteries can catch fire.

“We’re doing everything from the material science that actually changes the materials that batteries are made out of, clear up to how they operate in circuits,” Spangler says. “A lot of centers don’t do that full vertical immigration of the technology.”

“A soldier can grab a battery off of the shelf, slap it into their electronics and go out into the field and not have to worry, is it going to work?” Walker says. “Is it going to function? Will it function long enough and is it safe?”

Walker adds all of these improvements are important, in a world less and less plugged into walls.

“The capabilities, the expertise is second to none and it is what you will find at any internationally recognized center of excellence,” Walker says.” It’s here. That sense of discovery also fits into and helps drive this larger program with greater vision and scope with real deliverables at the end is really indescribable.”

Part of that $3 million contract will support 11 grad students and six postdoctoral positions, all working together.

“This is a terrific opportunity for students but it is also a chance to build on years of work we’ve done on fuel cells and apply that to next-generation batteries,” Spangler says.