Carnegie Mellon University
April 25, 2013

Modeling Electromechanical Materials for Next-Generation Battery Technology

Modeling Electromechanical Materials for Next-Generation Battery Technology

What do deep-sea bacteria have in common with your refrigerator? Both are the subject of CEE research efforts concerning energy generation and use, and may become key factors in the way we think about energy. In the face of climate change concerns coupled with a rising demand for power, researchers are striving to develop energy technology that will meet consumers’ needs while preserving the health of the environment. By tackling energy challenges from numerous directions, CEE researchers can give communities the tools they need for the sustainable generation and use of energy.

Below is part two of a four part series looking at how researchers in Civil and Environmental Engineering are examining how we can generate and use energy more efficiently. This story was originally published in the winter 2013 issue of the CEE News magazine.

Professor Kelvin Gregory is one of several CEE researchers who are thinking big by going small. Assistant Professor Kaushik Dayal studies the behavior of electromechanical and electrochemical materials, or materials that interact with electricity in fascinating ways. His research group’s current work, funded by the Army Research Office, focuses on understanding the physics behind atom-to-atom interactions at the nanoscale level, and has the potential to transform next-generation battery technology.

Dayal and PhD candidate Jason Marshall are working to develop a computer method to predict the behavior of electromechanical and electrochemical materials at the nanoscale. This method would provide researchers with valuable information about how these materials behave under electrical loadings. “When you go down to the atomic level, the structures of a material are constantly moving and changing, and you see impurities that you just don’t see at larger scales,” Marshall explained. “We’re working to incorporate those structural defects into a model so researchers can understand more about the structure of materials at the atomic level.”

The Dayal group’s approach to materials modeling represents the next step in the evolution of multiscale models. Because most current multiscale materials models assume that atoms only engage in short-range interactions with the atoms closest to them, these models are limited in their ability to characterize electromechanical materials, whose atoms interact with every other atom in the system. The Dayal group has successfully incorporated these long-range atom interactions into their model; in addition, they have found a way to run their model in tandem with existing models.

The research being conducted by the Dayal group has numerous applications; in particular, it could transform battery technology for use in hybrid cars and more. “Big batteries are not very efficient,” Dayal explained. “The more space between the two ends of a battery, the harder it is to quickly get energy from it. By making a battery about a nanometer long and lining it up with billions of others of its kind, we could theoretically form a larger battery that quickly provides energy.” Their work could also have applications in large-scale energy harvesting: systems based on intermittent power sources such as solar power would have the option of storing excess energy in large batteries and utilizing it in times of high demand.

Dayal framed his group’s research as a key step toward energy efficiency, saying, “Batteries are going to be important, and these materials are going to be important for batteries. It is the perfect time to advance these technologies.”

Part One: Developing Microbial Fuel Cells for Remote Power Generation