Elizabeth Biddinger on Green Energy Technology

In May 2017 during the 231st ECS Meeting, we sat down with 2016-2017 ECS Toyota Young Investigator Fellowship winner, Elizabeth Biddinger, to discuss green chemistry, sustainable engineering, and the future of transportation. The conversation was led by Amanda Staller, ECS’s web content specialist.

Biddinger is an assistant professor at the City College of New York, part of the City University of New York system. There, she leads a research group that covers research areas ranging from electrocatalysis to ionic liquids. Her work in switchable electrolytes earned her a spot among the 2016-2017 fellowship winners.

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Amanda Staller: How did you get involved wit the ECS Toyota Young Investigator Fellowship?

Elizabeth Biddinger: I was excited to hear about [the ECS Toyota Young Investigator Fellowship] when the inaugural call came out about two and a half years ago. At that time I did apply. I didn’t get in the inaugural set, but I did win in the second round. It’s very competitive and I’m one of very few who’ve received it so I’m very pleased about that.

The work that we’re actually doing is involved in battery safety and how we can make these high energy density batteries, which allow you to go longer miles or use more power in your phone, that are still safe, so we can reduce and prevent these battery fires that have been occurring that make popular news.

What we’re doing is studying the electrolyte in the battery that allows for the ions to conduct and complete the circuit. And what we want to do is to have it be a thermal switch, so it’s reversible system. If the battery starts to heat uncontrollably – the prelude to the fire – then the electrolyte shuts off, essentially closing the circuit, and then it allows it to cool before any scary events happen. What’s also great with our technology is that we’re looking to have it be reversible, so once it cools it can return back to the normal operating state. You haven’t killed the device in the process. You’ve avoided the safety incident and can continue to use it.

AS: What factors are causing these batteries fires that we’re seeing in the news?

EB: We’re packing large amounts of energy storage into small spaces. We want that in both our cellphone and our EVs, because we don’t want a battery to take up our entire trunk and we don’t want a cellphone battery that’s larger than my purse, yet we want to drive many miles and do all of the electronic things that we do on our phones for at least a full day. As we condense the size and increase the energy density, there are reactions that cause heat to generate.

It’s harder to remove that heat from the process when it’s very small. As the heat and the temperature increase in the battery, additional reactions start to occur where the traditional electrolytes start to decompose and they start to create gases, which creates a pressurized system. These electrolytes are also flammable. The combination of when you are generating gas into a pressurized system and when a flammable electrolyte bursts, you can have a fire.

AS: What drew you to green energy technology?

EB: I’ve always been interested in energy and environmental issues. I started out looking for what types of careers I could have that would have an impact on that and I found chemical engineering was one where I could really approach energy and environment issues in many different ways. I started out as a chemical engineer and I found that the concept of green chemistry and sustainable engineering really, for me, as a perspective on approaching problems. You can approach these energy and environment issues with the principals of green chemistry and sustainable engineering investigate them in a holistic manner from the science, but also in the broader perspective in which you have consider if the resources are available long term for this, but it also economically viable. These are all things that are part of the toolbox that I’ve built along the way that include electrochemistry, catalysis, the use of ionic liquids; but with that perspective of green chemistry and sustainable engineering.

AS: What are some ways that we can start to level the playing field for women in STEM, specifically women in the engineering fields where representation is slim.

EB: We have to have role models. Those of us who are lucky enough to be women in the STEM fields, particularly engineering, we need to be visible to the middle school and the elementary school students who are looking to see what they can do. I think it goes back to putting that human component in it. Studies have shown – and we see it in the enrollments – that when women can connect on a more personal level to a topic, they are driven more toward going into it. You’ll see that it’s pretty much 50/50 in biomedical engineer, for example, because there’s a real connect to the human component there. And there’s a connection to the human component in chemical, mechanical, electrical, and all these traditional engineer fields as well, but we just have done as great of a job at sharing it.

AS: Why is important for industry and academia to have a relationship?

EB: Anytime you have a relationship with industry it brings relevance back to your work. I’m doing very fundamental work. We haven’t even built a battery at this point and I don’t need to build a battery to get some of this information. But it could still have the perspective of: Am I proposing something that would ever be realistic? Whenever you work with someone in industry, they can give you that foundation.

It also gives some perspective of what really is the state-of-the-art and a bigger picture of the directions we should be following. And to be frank, in academia the traditional source of funding has been the federal government, and that slice of pie is getting smaller and more people are wanting a piece of it. It is challenging – especially as a young faculty member – to get the federal funding that may have been easier to get 20 or 30 years ago. So developing these relationships with industry is so much more important.

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