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Yu Looking To Improve Batteries

Published: December 2, 2013

The lowly battery, topping the list of least-sexy inventions, may soon play a pivotal role in world technology, powering up new corporate fortunes and remaking whole economies.

The batteries that Chemical Engineering’s Ted Yu is interested in aren’t the ones rolling around the world’s junk drawers. Instead, these are lithium-sulfur batteries which are rechargeable and notable for their high-energy density.

“This is still a battery that uses lithium but not heavy metals like manganese, cobalt or nickel,” Yu explained. “Sulfur, on the other hand, is cheap and plentiful. Everyone is looking at making batteries cheaper because everyone wants a Tesla, right?”

And, if Yu has his way, the makings of a competitor for the wallet-busting $65,000 Tesla roadster may not be too far down the road.

“We have to do something to bring that price down so everyone can have a Tesla,” Yu said. “Eventually, we will have batteries for all our cars instead of gasoline. Produce a battery for the right price and the internal-combustion engine will be redundant.”

By virtue of the low atomic weight of lithium and moderate weight of sulfur, lithium-sulfur batteries are relatively light and may succeed lithium-ion cells because of their higher energy density and reduced cost.

Yu earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from CSULB in 2002. He sharpened his expertise in materials science by acquiring a Bachelor of Science degree from UCLA in material science, then a Master of Science degree from UC Berkeley and finally a doctorate in material science from Caltech in 2012.

Yu is researching a kind of computer simulation that picks the best materials for tomorrow’s newer, less-expensive battery. Instead of resorting to trial-and-error with other types of materials, computer modeling can test alternative materials to create a less-expensive battery.

“I am interested in batteries for the same reason that everyone else is,” said Yu, “because batteries represent a sustainable energy source for the future.”

Yu simulates materials to be able to understand what materials are needed and to test potential chemical reactions that makes a better battery. Conceivably, the materials could do things on the computer that are impossible to re-create in experiments. “Many of the most pressing scientific problems that are currently faced today are due to the limitations of the materials that are currently available,” Yu explained. “As a result, breakthroughs in this field are likely to have a significant impact on the future of human technology.”

Materials science, also commonly known as materials engineering, is an interdisciplinary field applying the properties of matter to various areas of science and engineering. This relatively new scientific field investigates the relationship between the structure of materials at atomic or molecular scales and their macroscopic properties. It incorporates elements of applied physics, engineering and chemistry.

Yu Looking To Improve Batteries
PHOTO BY DAVID J. NELSON
Ted Yu

There will be plenty of student participation in his research, Yu predicts. “Simulations can be challenging so I’ll need all the help I can get,” he said. Yu thanked the department for supporting his research with the planned purchase of such equipment as a “glove box” to build batteries with the reactive lithium as well as battery testers to see how many cycles his batteries can run. “The lab will be a place where simulations and experiments go hand in hand. Students will simulate the materials that they envision and test it out to see how it performs in the real world,” he said. ”Hopefully, the students will not only learn about materials but how to perform research step by step.”

Yu hopes for a battery laboratory in his future. “I plan to have a battery lab that is capable of doing the things that a small battery start-up company can do,” he said. “This includes building a battery from chemicals, putting it together and testing it on the battery cycler. From the results of the battery tested, we will be able to modify the chemicals again to see what works better. The goal of this is not only to improve batteries, but also to help immerse the CSULB students into the emerging battery field. In this way, the students will have a step up when they apply to battery companies after they graduate.

“I am still collaborating with my previous UCLA advisor that I worked with as a postdoc,” he explained. “I am also working with my Ph.D. advisor from Caltech. Their advice is invaluable.”

The new equipment and student assistance promise a continued commitment to battery research on Yu’s part, he feels. “It has been a dream of mine for a long time to have my own battery lab,” he said. “I envision a lab where students will learn how batteries are built and improved; a place where they can make lasting contributions to the battery industry.”