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Collaborative research identifies a new class of materials for lithium ion batteries

You need to make an important phone call. You’re nowhere near an electrical outlet and your phone shuts down due to a critically low battery. If this sounds at all familiar, you are not alone.  In fact, poor battery life is the top complaint about smartphones these days. Moore’s law predicts that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years, which essentially means that our smartphones are becoming more and more powerful at an incredible speed. Unfortunately, virtually nothing has changed for the batteries that power our smartphones.

The poor battery life is, indeed, a materials problem. The materials we use for the battery cannot hold enough energy. Materials scientists and engineers have fought hard to search for new battery materials, but with limited success.

Recently, Dr. Ying Ma and his research group of undergraduate collaborators, together with two experimental groups at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and the University of Oregon, have identified a new class of materials for lithium ion batteries: Bis(aryl) Tetrasulfides. These organic molecules consist of a linear chain of four sulfur atoms that store two to three times more energy as compared to the battery materials we are using today. Furthermore, these materials are cheap and environmental friendly! This research appears in a recent issue of Chemistry, A European Journal.

“This project is a perfect example of a collaborative research where scientists with different expertise work together to achieve a common goal. Such a collaboration also provides our students with a unique experience to see how computational techniques are used to address real-world challenges.” said Dr. Ma, whose group focused on revealing the behaviors of those molecules during the energy storage process using computational tools.

Zachary Wawrzyniakowski, a 2017 UWEC graduate who performed most of the calculations for the project and is the second author of the paper, said: “It was very interesting to be doing research in a place where experimental and computational research meet. To be given a problem that comes from the lab, and told to use the computer to simulate what is actually happening at an atomic level is not something I ever thought I would be doing. I got a lot out of my experience.” Zach is now studying intellectual property law at Illinois Institute of Technology, and he hopes that someday he can help to protect the intellectual property of new energy technologies, just like the one he had worked on.

Zach is not the only Blugold involved in the project. Joe Ackerson, who is currently a Materials Science senior, screened many more new molecules using computational tools. “This has been a great opportunity to be a part of this research. Not only am I gaining experience in computational research, but also to add my own findings to the current problem is very rewarding. I hope that my contribution to the project can get us one step closer to a better battery.” Joe said.

Dr. Ma is very optimistic about these organic molecules. He said: “I believe Bis(aryl) Tetrasulfides is only a start. It really opened the door to a new class of materials. We will continue to search for the best possible materials for lithium ion batteries.”

For more information, please contact Dr. Ying Ma.