Skip to main content

Batteries for NASA

NanoEngineering professor Shirley Meng (center) runs the Laboratory for Energy Storage and Conversion. Lab members, including graduate student Daniel (Dae Hoe) Lee (right) and postdoctoral fellow Kyler Carroll (left), are developing better lithium-ion batteries.

NanoEngineers are designing powerful, energy rich, lithium-ion batteries that could be used in NASA space exploration projects as well as electric cars and consumer electronics.

"There is plenty of room for improving energy density in lithium batteries by at least another 50 percent. The problem is making these improvements under the constraints of cost. We need to make sure the raw materials are low cost, the synthesis process is low cost, and the packaging of the battery is low cost," said NanoEngineering professor Shirley Meng.

UC San Diego and NEI Corp. recently won a Phase II Small Business Technology Transfer contract from NASA to develop high energy density cathode materials. Cathodes serve as the positive electrode for lithium batteries, and the cathodes in modern lithium batteries cause significant performance bottlenecks.

Meng's team of NanoEngineers designs candidate cathode materials using "first principles calculations" - a quantummechanical based calculation method that enables the engineers to predict electrochemical properties of the batteries prior to synthesis.

"We will give NEI candidate materials that we think will have optimal battery properties, and they will make the materials using their proprietary technology," said Meng, who leads the Laboratory for Energy Storage and Conversion. NEI expects to have sample cathode materials for testing by interested end-users by the middle of 2011.

Silver disks the size of a nickel house experimental battery materials that the NanoEngineers design, synthesize and test.

The lithium ion batteries in Meng's group are primarily manganese based, while most of the lithium batteries in the marketplace today are cobalt based.

"Manganese is much cheaper than cobalt, and manganese is more abundant," said Meng. "Also, we are focusing on a different material structure for the batteries, one that is easier to make and could lead to cheaper synthesis."

Developing batteries for transportation systems is on Meng's todo list. "Lithium batteries for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles or full electric cars have a lot of potential, but we have to work very hard to decrease the dollar per kilowatt hour numbers," said Meng.

Print Article