Reimagining the Battery

Prof. Dan Steingart has some unusual ideas about how to improve energy storage

Sep 08 2020 | Video Credit: Jane Nisselson

A series of conversations on pioneering research.

Test set up for flow battery that operates without a pump.

It’s not enough to develop carbon-free alternatives to fossil fuels. To effectively combat global warming we also must find smarter ways to store and transport all that clean energy on a massive scale. How is that possible? Enter the humble battery: a 19th century technology poised to play an outsized role in the 21st century. But for batteries to rise to this challenge, their current technology will need a dramatic upgrade. Enter Professor Dan Steingart, co-director of the Columbia Electrochemical Energy Center. Steingart’s lab is known for employing inventive, unorthodox approaches to rethink battery science from the ground up.

How would you sum up the big idea animating your research?

Batteries are insanely complex—if you improve them in one way, you’re always going to find you’ve caused a negative reaction somewhere down the line. That exact problem has held back advances in energy storage for decades.

But we think we can have our cake and eat it too. So we focus on the negative—we take all the mechanisms and interactions going on inside batteries that cause them to fail and flip them into strategies for creating more robust energy storage platforms. Leveraging the behaviors of material deposition, conversion, and dissolution, we’re out to create new approaches tailored to problems of cost and scale.

What conventional wisdom about batteries would your group like to upend?

Do cheap things have to break? In particular, do cheap batteries have to stop working eventually? The best batteries out there right now are expensive and these costs are preventing immediate implementation in a host of applications from electric vehicles to commercial long duration storage. The impact we could achieve by developing low cost, scalable alternatives would be huge.

In my lab, we’re interested in the areas unexplored by conventional wisdom. And it turns out that when you stop saying you can’t let something happen, and instead ask “what actually happens when this ‘bad thing’ happens?”, that opens up certain pathways. Take short-circuiting—that can lead to fires so a lot of effort is expended in devising strategies to circumvent it. But does a short circuit have to create a fire? That inspired us to set out to create a constantly short-circuiting battery, and in doing so found that we created a battery that doesn’t die (at least in the standard way). What else is possible?

What are some developments in your lab that you’re currently particularly excited about?

Right now my team is focusing on “electron fouling”—all the little chemical reactions going on on the side every time a battery charges and discharges. These reactions don’t play a useful role, in fact they destroy performance over time by slowly breaking down the battery’s materials. We want to take these side reactions and figure out how to realign them so that they’re somehow helping prolong the life of the system.

That’s a great example of our process. Developing new, more efficient materials are hugely important to advancing the science of batteries. But how you put a battery together also matters a lot. That’s why we don’t just make new materials, we also put those new materials together in sometimes counterintuitive ways. Then we push them until they break and unearth something new about the underlying physics in the process.

The Big Idea: Reimagining the Battery