January 16, 2020 | For many years at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Chunmei Ban worked on materials science for battery applications. Now she works on the chemistries and manufacturing techniques for energy storage materials and systems at the University of Colorado, Boulder as an associate professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering Program. The move to academia happened as much for the future of science as for the work itself.
“We need more people who have the passion and are passionate about research,” says Ban. “Most people think research is boring, but I think as long as you start to really dig in, it’s a really fun and meaningful thing.”
Ban wanted to encourage the next generation of researchers—especially women and minorities—and she feels academia is the perfect place to do it.
On behalf of Battery Power Online, Hannah Loss recently spoke with Ban about the future of solid-state batteries, what the battery market needs, and what inspires her. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
There’s a quote on your lab web site by Albert Einstein, “Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.” Do you find inspiration from nature when you’re trying to solve research problems?
Always! I feel that nature tells us a lot of things. Newton found gravity from nature, and then the laws of motion. Later, the discovery of the four laws of thermodynamics was very fundamental for all of the industrial revolution: engines, trains, and how we power the train. We still use the gas-powered car. That is all from a principle which already existed in nature. I feel we can always learn from nature, and I feel that nature has a lot of things we still don’t know, like materials in oceans and woods. They have very unique functions. My colleague found some materials from ocean shells that can have a really unique strength and they can handle unbelievable stress.
I feel as though all of the materials from nature and from nature’s processes such as sunlight—can we fully utilize them? The photosynthetic process gives us food and gives us plants. Everything is rooted in the natural and we needed to respect them, and hopefully we can look more into nature and find more principles and even some kind of unique process.
We should also pay attention to what we will leave for nature. After we human beings have lived on earth for thousands and thousands of years, did we actually maintain nature’s process? Did we protect sustainability or did we destroy? That is the reason for my focus area on the energy and energy-related technologies.
Very timely and I think that’s a beautiful way to look at it: that nature does connect to everything, not only sustainable energy technologies but what batteries are made of.
Yes. All of our raw materials are from nature, and we are just trying to better use them. We need to have our own synthesis and processes to change the nature of materials, but at the end, if we want to have a low-cost, scale-up manufacturing and materials, we should know how we can reduce those processing times, how we can maintain their original structure and originality, and how we can reduce our costs and further influence all of the materials and new technologies. That is what I think nature teaches us.
Before coming to University of Colorado, you worked for many years at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL. What was the transition back to academics like?
I really like this question because I feel a National Lab did offer me unique opportunities to learn the big picture of energy and to learn about national efforts. Being back in academia puts more focus on education and fundamental research. Education and training become essential to future energy technologies. If we want to encourage or if we want to further improve the technology and the science, we should have more people, and more researchers, and more engineers trained from universities. I feel academia is definitely the place we can encourage more young people to join science and technologies. The collaboration effort between national labs and universities would develop an efficient environment to inspire and better prepare future scientists and engineers.
Academic research is a little bit different from the National Lab. The National Lab can be a multi-entities effort, a consortium effort. They target the grand challenges, sophisticated, multidisciplinary challenges and questions that involve a fundamental understanding, characterization and computation facilities and the potential for commercialization. The collaboration between national labs and universities can significantly benefit the development of new technologies and build the future science and technology workforce.
Your lab developed an electrospinning/electrospraying technique. What are the implications for grid energy storage, transportation, or other applications?
The electrospinning/electrospraying technique is one of technologies for advanced manufacturing, which would provide new insights for manufacturing all-solid-state batteries. Processing solid-state electrolyte and continuous manufacturing of all–solid-state batteries is very challenging. New techniques are needed for currently available materials to manufacture low-cost all–solid-state batteries. I feel by using new ways of manufacturing them, we can help bring this technology a little bit closer to commercialization.
I saw in a news article recently that Bentley is looking to make an electric vehicle with all–solid–state batteries to power them. They have another five plus years before they even expect those cars to be on the market. What barriers related to battery technologies and chemistries can cause these sorts of delays in bringing next generation batteries to market?
The first thing is cost. No one wants to have a battery that is more expensive than our current batteries, the current technology. The electric–powered car is already more expensive than the gasoline–powered car. Can we actually help reduce those costs not only for the battery itself, but also for the accessories and management systems for the batteries? Then, without greatly increasing the cost, we look for batteries with more energy for higher mileage per charging, long life and the capability for fast charging. Those all end up in actual values on the car and the batteries.
As we continue to work and solve problems and manufacturing and chemistries, in which sectors do you expect to see the biggest impact from improved energy storage?
I feel the energy storage system is very complicated. Everything is interconnected. All of its components are synchronized and integrated. Besides the development of each component, the integration becomes more important at the end. New concepts, new manufacturing techniques and new chemistry would potentially impact the future energy storage systems, but the integration and final implementation are also critical to fully realize the potential.
Sounds like nature to me. Everything interconnected.
Exactly. I think that is true.