Technology solutions to climate problems: Zinc batteries, hydrogels, and firefighter respirators

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Professor Richard Kaner’s group is one of three research teams featured in a recent University of California (UC) Research & Innovation article about UC researchers pursuing technological solutions to climate-related problems with funding from California Climate Action Seed Grants.

From UC Research & Innovation (by Janet Byron):

Technology solutions to climate problems: Zinc batteries, hydrogels, and firefighter respirators

Technology solutions to climate problems: Zinc batteries, hydrogels, and firefighter respirators
UC Los Angeles Prof. Yuzhang Li’s research group is developing zinc batteries to store renewable energy for the grid. Zhangdi (Jasmine) Xie can assemble coin cell-sized versions outside of a protective atmosphere because the technology is nonflammable and nontoxic. Image credit: Courtesy Yuzhang Li

Richard Kaner was blown away by Yuzhang Li at an interdepartmental talk over Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I heard his seminar and I thought, ‘This guy knows more about batteries than anyone I’ve ever met’,” says Kaner, a UCLA distinguished professor internationally recognized for his work on battery technology.

Kaner got in touch with UCLA assistant professor Li, and the two scientists — one a veteran, the other launching his career — teamed up to take on large-format battery storage, the major impediment to the widespread deployment of renewable energy in power grids. 

Li and Kaner are among three research groups pursuing technological solutions to climate-related problems with funding from California Climate Action Seed Grants. Also at UCLA, researchers are helping to find respiratory protection suitable for firefighters working in wildlands and at the wildland-urban interface, where blazes are becoming increasingly common due to climate change. At UC San Diego, researchers are investigating a novel use of hydrogels to help keep increasingly scarce water on small farms. These three projects are among 38 supported by more than $80 million in state funding provided to the University of California for Climate Action projects. 

Technology solutions to climate problems: Zinc batteries, hydrogels, and firefighter respirators
Distinguished professor Richard Kaner and assistant professor Yuzhang Li, both of UC Los Angeles, are developing less toxic and more efficient batteries to store renewable power.

New chemistry for grid-scale batteries

Building on previous research funded by the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, Li and Kaner received a $1 million, two-year UC California Climate Action Seed grant to develop grid-scale battery technology based on zinc and vanadium. These two abundant, nontoxic metals are much less expensive and safer than lithium-based batteries.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only about 2% to 5% of the electricity currently generated in the United States is stored. Without more storage, the expansion of intermittent, renewable power sources will make the electrical grid ever more vulnerable to fluctuations in power generation and demand.

“The sun doesn’t shine all the time, and the wind doesn’t blow all the time,” says Kaner, who has joint appointments in the UCLA Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Materials Science and Engineering. “You need to be able to store that energy.”

Li and Kaner’s rechargeable battery would deploy vanadium oxide in the cathode (positive electrode) and metallic zinc at the anode (negative electrode). They will use a technique called laser-scribed synthesis developed by Kaner to produce a novel vanadium oxide cathode and demonstrate the battery’s effectiveness with a powerful cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) technique pioneered by Li. 

A water-based electrolyte solution would store the electrons that pass between the cathode and anode as electricity. By contrast, current large-scale battery technology relies on lithium, which is “very expensive and not particularly safe,” Kaner says. “It catches on fire and the batteries can explode.”

Technology solutions to climate problems: Zinc batteries, hydrogels, and firefighter respirators
Sophia Uemura of Prof. Richard Kaner’s research group makes cathode materials for novel 3-D battery architectures in an attempt to push the boundaries of zinc batteries to achieve grid-scale applications. Image credit: Courtesy Richard Kaner

“Our goal is to develop battery chemistries based on water as the solvent,” making the battery less flammable and easier to recycle, says Li, assistant professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UCLA. 

In lab experiments, these zinc-ion batteries powered by aqueous chemistry recharged, or cycled, at three times the rate of lithium batteries, meaning they can be charged and discharged much faster. Unpublished results from preliminary work done with the California NanoSystems Institute grant demonstrated “the longest-cycling performance of a vanadium-based cathode that simultaneously exhibits the highest cycling rate and capacity reported to date.”

The Climate Action grant will fund the materials engineering needed to optimize the zinc-based cathode material; evaluate and test large-format batteries with zinc- and vanadium-based chemistry; and pilot-test the refrigerator-sized batteries at microgrid-scale in a planned 75-unit affordable housing complex in Southern California.

Li sees this work as directly in line with the ambitious climate-related goals he has established for his lab: “To understand and develop new (electro)chemical systems that will play a major role in renewable energy, sustainability, and global climate change, all of which represent grand challenges for the 21st century.”

While the preliminary results for zinc- and vanadium-based battery technology are exciting and promising, neither scientist is anywhere close to declaring that the storage problem for renewable energy is close to being solved.

“This is better than anything that we found in the published literature, and we’ve had a few ‘eureka’ moments when we looked at our data,” Li says. “But we both have a healthy skepticism. There’s still a way to go with this technology.” 

Read the full article here.