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  • Alex Fitzgerald

Ionogels: A Step Towards Improving Lithium-Ion Battery Storage and Renewable Energy Overall

The consequences of primarily relying on fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources have become impossible to ignore. As such, the conversation regarding a more significant dependence on renewable energies has become increasingly prevalent. When considering this transition, not only must one evaluate the recent developments in renewable energy infrastructure, but also the progress in energy storage systems.

Improving energy storage systems, especially in the form of large-scale battery storage, holds the key to more substantial renewable energy contributions to the grid. While lithium-ion batteries assume a large role in the effort, Professor Matthew Panzer sees great opportunities for their improvement via the incorporation of ionogels. In doing so, the polymer scaffolding component of the ionogel provides an alternative, more efficient, pathway for lithium ions to move through the cell, thereby theoretically increasing lithium-ion battery storage capacity and efficiency.

Although Professor Panzer has found the study of electrolyte design the most rewarding in his research career, the study of protein separation served as his introduction into research while earning a B.S., with distinction, in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware. Progressing forward in his academic career, earning a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, Professor Panzer transitioned into the study of transistors and the potential involvement of ionic liquids as a dielectric medium. Later in his postdoctoral work at MIT, Professor Panzer incorporated his study of transistors into work with optics, specifically while studying solar cells and LEDs.

The path to Professor Panzer’s current area of study has allowed him not only to explore a diverse range of scientific fields but also the research process as a whole. When first becoming involved with research, “I think sometimes you get your feet wet and you sort of see, do you like grappling with open-ended problems?” Professor Panzer shares. Before diving into an area of interest by the means of research, one must ask themselves if the crux of the research process is their preferred method to access such an area. For Professor Panzer, research is fundamentally about “pushing into the unknown if no one’s tried something before. That’s what got me excited because I think research should be about discovery.”

No matter the field, the ability to explore areas that have, to an extent, gone unexplored transfixed Professor Panzer, allowing him to preliminarily investigate and later solidify his interest in ionic liquids. As such, the primary focus of the research undertaken by his group focuses on the versatility and potential applications of ionic liquids into existing and novel technologies.

In reference to enhancing lithium-ion battery storage capabilities, the characteristic qualities of ionogels must first be understood. The intrinsic nature of ionogels rests in the composite structure of ionic liquids and polymer matrices. Such a structure allows for the unique properties of ionic liquids including negligible vapor pressure, thermal stability, and non flammability, to be preserved in the battery, thereby facilitating standard ion transport while also providing a more efficient route for transportation.

When considering the scaffolding that would best provide an alternative transportation route, Professor Panzer, per his philosophy that research should be centered around probing into the unknown, selected zwitterionic polymers.

Spurred by a colleague’s investigation of the polymers in their application to water treatment, Professor Panzer found a knowledge gap when evaluating the interaction between zwitterions and ionic liquids. This lack of understanding coupled with their high thermal stability and their ability to act as permanent dipoles provided enticing reasoning for further exploration of zwitterions.

For the past five years, the applicability of zwitterionic polymers has held the attention of the Panzer research group. When further examining the unique qualities of zwitterions, their pertinence in lithium-ion batteries became increasingly apparent.

“Because it has this dipole, and this charge that’s fixed, it can interact with ions in our electrolyte, including lithium. In terms of testing whether the lithium motion is faster or not, we measure the conductivity. So what we found was that certain zwitterion, ionic groups, not all of the ones we looked at, but certain ones, did improve the total lithium conductivity of the gel, compared to the liquid without any polymer.”

With this exciting scientific development, one must then also consider the applicability of the breakthrough. If the goal of this development is to improve lithium-ion battery storage to better store renewably generated energy, does this technological advancement truly bring us closer to this overarching goal?

To this question, one must understand that “you don’t need one type of battery to solve all the world’s problems. You don’t need one type of transistor to do everything in electronics.” With every technological advancement, there is a specific application. As we progress towards a more sustainable future, we must move away from the binary view of a solution. No one development will serve as the remedy for climate change.

In the application of ionogels to lithium-ion batteries, Professor Panzer sees great potential for their implementation into smaller portable batteries, especially in those of wearable devices. This is in large part due to the low volatility of ionogels, inherently making the batteries in the devices safer. Additionally, this application may be the most fitting as, due to the low scale in which ionic liquids and zwitterionic polymers are produced, ionogels can be rather expensive.

“When you think about large-scale solar storage, like for a city, in my mind cost has to be number one, because it’s going to be a really big storage system.” In such a scenario, ionogels may not be the most appropriate. Yet as previously mentioned, no one battery must exclusively hold the solution to renewable energy storage.

Independent from his accomplishments in his professional research ventures are those that come with working in academia and the ability to mentor both graduate and undergraduate students.

“For me, the biggest reward is watching students grow as researchers and publish and graduate. In my mind, the view of an academic lab is to help train the next generation of researchers. It’s about investing in people as resources for the future.” As an educator, the focus of Professor Panzer’s work is not solely on tangible discovery, but also on the proliferation of knowledge, in preserving the value of curiosity.

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