DOE funds $11 million battery research center at University of Michigan


The new research center will focus on the development of advanced batteries and fuel cells for electric vehicles.

The University of Michigan and eight partner institutions will explore the use of ceramic ion conductors as replacements for the traditional liquid or polymer electrolytes in common lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and in flow cells for storing renewable energy in the grid. The $10.95 million four-year grant establishes a Department of Energy research facility called the ‘Mechano-chemical Understanding of Solid Ion Conductors’ (MUSIC). University of Michigan established the program in 2009, and it is designed to “tackle the toughest scientific challenges preventing advances in energy technologies.”

“The recent discovery of ceramic ion conductors that simultaneously exhibit unprecedented performance and stability has the potential to change the electrochemical energy storage technology landscape,” said Jeff Sakamoto, professor of mechanical engineering at University of Michigan and director of the new center.

Partner institutions in MUSIC include Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Texas, Austin, Northwestern University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Princeton University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Purdue University.

The DOE center’s work will focus on understanding mechanical and chemical phenomena that affect advanced battery designs. Ceramic ion conductors could help advanced batteries pack more power than lithium-ion batteries of the same size. However, when these new conductors are in contact with other components, new and unusual behaviors arise from that blend of mechanical, electrical and chemical interactions.

A demonstration of a machine that uses heat to densify a ceramic known as LLZO at 1,225 degrees Celsius.

Image: Evan Dougherty/Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

“Our new center seeks to bridge fundamental knowledge gaps related to mechano-chemistry with a diverse group of researchers who come from disparate fields of study,” Sakamoto said.

Ceramic ion conductors represent one of those advances, and MUSIC is charged with performing the basic science needed to explore their potential impact on a variety of technologies. Those include long-duration energy storage and hydrogen fuel cells.

“We have decades of fundamental research into ion conduction in ceramics to work with, and we’re applying that knowledge towards emerging applications such as batteries and fuel cells,” said Neil Dasgupta, MUSIC’s deputy director and an associate professor of mechanical engineering at University of Michigan.

“However, critical barriers remain before widespread commercialization can be realized—many of which center around the unique mechanical properties that emerge at solid-solid interfaces in electrochemical cells. An overarching goal of MUSIC is to reveal the fundamental mechanisms of how mechanical stresses and strains interact with electrochemistry, which will inform future efforts to scale-up and accelerate commercialization of next-generation energy storage technology,” he added.

While lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous, they come with safety issues as they typically use flammable liquid electrolytes to shuttle ions back and forth between the cathode and anode in a cell. In addition to greater energy density, replacing those liquid electrolytes with ceramic ion conductors has the potential for improved safety. Another focus of study is to look at manufacturing techniques with an eye toward lowering the cost of batteries. They will also examine how the introduction of ceramic ion conductors impacts degradation in lithium metal, sodium metal and other solid state configurations.

MUSIC will be the latest addition to University of Michigan’s expanding portfolio of research projects tied to the future of mobility. In July, the State of Michigan approved a budget that included $130 million for a new EV center led by Michigan Engineering. And University of Michigan is already home to the Walter E. Lay Auto Lab, Mcity autonomous vehicle testing facility, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and is a founding partner of the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti.

“Michigan continues to be at the center of mobility, and U-M is a critical hub where all of the players—automakers, legislators, regulators, academics and researchers—interact and examine the issues at play,” said Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering.

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