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Innovative energy solutions also require innovations in energy storage

AUTHOR: Nina Welding

PUBLISHED: August 23, 2019

So much emphasis has been placed on the creation of energy — from developing cleaner and more efficient ways to generate and burn traditional fuels to intensifying research surrounding the production and use of renewable energy technologies. What’s sometimes left out of the picture when discussing the future of energy is energy storage.

Think about it. People need energy whether the sun is out or not. They need it when the wind is blowing and when it’s dead calm. They need it when they travel, especially if access to an energy grid is limited. They need it in developing countries where there is either no grid or inadequate energy resources. People around the world need energy 24-7.

Without storage, however, any energy generated but not used is wasted.  

Jennifer L. Schaefer, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Notre Dame, and her research team are working to address the critical needs for energy storage in both developed and developing markets. Specifically, they are exploring a number of rechargeable battery options. Current projects include work on high-energy density batteries for longer battery life, batteries that employ polymer electrolytes so that they are safer in the event of failure, and batteries made from the Earth’s abundant resources so they are less expensive for grid-scale storage applications.

Schaefer was recently named a 2019 Toyota Young Investigator Fellow by the Electrochemical Society and the Toyota Research Institute of North America for her work focusing on lithium metal batteries, which are desirable for applications where lightweight storage and performance are required such as drones and cars.

All of her work with batteries focuses on structure-property relationships, exploiting the design of the materials used in a battery in order to achieve specific features. For example, she is working to develop a rechargeable battery with a magnesium (Mg) anode and a sulfur (S) cathode. Both magnesium and sulfur are abundant elements with widespread distribution throughout the globe that can be recovered at low cost. This makes them ideal choices for sustainable battery technology. The issue Schaefer and her team are studying as it relates to Mg-S batteries is known as the polysulfide shuttle effect. This effect results in dramatic capacity fading and a short battery life.

She and her team have developed a class of polymers capable of mitigating the polysulfide shuttle effect. They are continuing their studies to provide a more comprehensive picture of the ion transport that occurs during battery operation. In particular, they are focusing on ways to rationally influence ion transport to guide the future engineering of better materials — structure-property relationships — for Mg-S and other metal-sulfur batteries.

Schaefer is also an affiliated faculty member in the Center for Sustainable Energy at Notre Dame. For more information on the work being conducted in the Schaefer Research Group, visit https://www.schaeferresearch.com/.