If Missourians are going to attain a carbon-neutral future, they will need reliable and affordable lithium-ion batteries.

Batteries are critical for utility companies looking to store solar or wind energy, car companies hoping to sell electric vehicles, and many other makers of consumer electronics.

As James Owen, executive director of the advocacy group Renew Missouri, said, reliable batteries “are absolutely a make-or-break thing for us.”

The current generation of batteries can be inefficient, however, and even worse, they are sometimes combustible.

That’s where three MU researchers step in. They recently received a three-year, $537,725 grant from the National Science Foundation “to help researchers develop safer and higher performance batteries,” in the words of the grant application.

The researchers are Matthias J. Young, an assistant professor in the departments of chemical engineering and chemistry, Xiaoqing He, an adjunct professor in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering; and graduate student Nikhila Paranmana.

Many of the current generation of lithium-ion batteries rely on a liquid form of electrolytes to transmit energy. This coating service sometimes leads to batteries catching fire and can reduce the overall lifespan of a battery.

“Battery failure starts in tiny interfacial regions that are more than 1,000 times thinner than a human hair,” the researchers wrote in the proposal.

Using an electron microscope, Young and He hope to discover how to replace liquid electrolytes with a solid interface. Explaining their intentions to the National Science Foundation, the researchers believe they can improve “the safety and performance of lithium-ion batteries.”

If successful, the implications could be significant. One possible impact, according to Renew Missouri’s Owen, would be to empower homeowners to essentially generate their own energy because they would have an excellent storage system.

“Battery storage allows you to live off the grid,” Owen said. “I almost think to an extent you’re going to be able to decentralize” energy production.

Batteries are not a total solution to the environmental impact of energy production. But, as Owen said, society’s goal should be looking for “the least lousy way” of generating energy rather than a method with no impact.

By dramatically reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, batteries would be critical in keeping global temperatures from reaching dangerous thresholds.

Batteries may even alter the political discussion around climate policies because people across the political spectrum are beginning to appreciate the social and economic potential they offer.

Many liberals applaud the environmental impact, but Owen also noted: “We are starting to see more and more Republicans embrace renewable energy.”

Libertarian-minded Missourians like the notion of self-sufficiency that batteries offer, while pro-business groups have recognized that mines in southeastern Missouri are capable of producing some of the minerals necessary for battery production.

It’s a lot of impact for an area 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.

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