Virginia Tech’s Economical and Sustainable Materials (ESM) Destination Area recently awarded a $10,000 seed grant to a team led by Lou Madsen, professor of chemistry, and Feng Lin, assistant professor of chemistry, in the College of Science, to support a Department of Energy (DOE) funding proposal for their work in new energy storage and conversion technologies.

As a result of the ESM’s support and Madsen and Lin’s research collaboration, DOE recently awarded a grant of $1 million to help advance the Virginia Tech team’s development of a new and innovative electrolyte for safe and higher energy density vehicle transportation batteries. The funding is shared between Madsen’s and Lin’s research groups, which are jointly focused on a “solid-state battery electrolyte” that can remove the risk of fire from lithium batteries, increase energy storage density through lighter weight and smaller sized batteries, and enable battery operation over a wide temperature range.

“Today’s lithium batteries can only operate over a range of approximately zero degrees (water freezing) to 50 degrees Celsius (desert temps),” said Madsen. “Our new material shows promise for extending this range to negative 30 degrees Celsius on the low end, which would be as cold as it gets in the winter in Minnesota, to 150 degrees Celsius on the high end, which is hotter than any outside temperature we would see on earth. This means you could operate and charge the battery in extreme environments and also with the goal of faster charging and discharging.”

Lin and his research group, who are the team’s experts in battery technology and electrochemical analysis, will work with Madsen to make and evaluate the effectiveness of new battery cells. Madsen and his group will fabricate and iterate on the materials and characterize them with magnetic resonance techniques (similar to medical MRI). Lin’s research group will also use a collection of high-powered X-ray techniques at such state-of-the-art facilities as Argonne National Lab and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to further analyze and improve the material properties.

Madsen’s and Lin’s work to develop battery materials for advanced vehicles relates directly to the original developers of lithium-ion batteries, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019. Lin hosted one of these Nobel winning chemists, Professor Stan Whittingham of the State University of New York at Binghamton, during a visit to Virginia Tech this past fall, just after Madsen and Lin were awarded the DOE grant. Whittingham discussed science with the Madsen-Lin team and delivered a seminar of his perspectives on the future of lithium batteries.

The ESM’s call for proposals for seed grant funding resulted in 12 initial proposals from teams working across a number of disciplines, departments, and colleges. Following a workshop designed to help facilitate teams in initiating their research activities, the ESM selected two teams for funding, which included Madsen and Lin.

“The proposal from the research team led by Drs. Madsen and Lin indicated very well-thought-out ideas as to how to use the funds,” said Ann Marie Norris, program manager for the ESM Destination Area. “Their proposal explained that the grant would be used for proposal development to professionally tailor it to focus on program and agency needs, desires, and specifications, and to develop cutting-edge graphical representations of scientific concepts. By being awarded the $10,000 seed money from ESM, they did in fact hire a consulting firm, which did help them to obtain the $1 million DOE grant.”

Madsen’s research focuses on the creation and understanding of materials with applications in sustainable energy storage, water purification and nanomedicine. During his time at Virginia Tech, he has more than 55 publications in top journals, including Nature Materials, Nature Communications, Macromolecules, Journal of Physical Chemistry, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and ACS Energy Letters. These articles describe fundamental studies on polymer membranes for water desalination and fuel cells, polymeric nanocarriers for biomedicine, and molecular composite electrolytes for advanced batteries. Madsen also has a three-year $440,000 National Science Foundation grant to study the basic formation mechanisms of these materials, understand their properties and work to design new materials.

Lin joined the faculty in the Department of Chemistry as an assistant professor in fall of 2016. With his students and collaborators, he has published more than 40 peer-reviewed battery publications, including 20 corresponding-author articles in Chemical Reviews, Nature Communications, Energy & Environmental Science, Advanced Energy Materials, Nano Letters, ACS Catalysis, Energy Storage Materials, Small, Nano Energy, ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, Journal of Materials Chemistry A, Journal of the Electrochemical Society, and Journal of Physical Chemistry C. Lin’s battery and materials electrochemistry research at Virginia Tech has led to over $5 million funding, with over $2 million dedicated to the Lin Lab.