Research team investigates new batteries to power the future

We power much of our lives using batteries, but scientists know there are a limited amount of resources to continue producing the batteries we use.

So, one Cornell Summer Research Institute team is working on a solution as demand for batteries continues to increase.

“During the Cornell Summer Research Institute (CSRI), we are working on a project that will help develop the next generation of batteries or battery alternatives,” said Professor of Chemistry Craig Teague, the Richard and Norma Small Distinguished Professor. “It turns out we need batteries for lots and lots of things–phones, laptops, cars–and it’s really a limiting technology.” 

The batteries we use in many situations are called lithium-ion batteries, and most lithium is mined outside of the United States. This Cornell College research team, which includes Teague, Arianna Jewell, and Dane Markegard, is part of a larger group of researchers, including chemists and engineers from several U.S. colleges and universities studying redox flow batteries. 

“In these batteries, the chemicals that do the reaction flow into the battery, and then the products of the reactions flow out,” Teague said. “We want to have specific molecules that will do what lithium does–give up and take electrons–but we want to do it with those molecules instead of with lithium.”

The group spends their days making solutions to study the reactions that happen. Jewell says the team is starting small as they learn what works and what doesn’t. 

“These are molecules that we are using as a model to see what happens when we move to bigger molecules and how they would work in the battery,” said Jewell, a junior from North Carolina. “So, it’s kind of getting the process down, so that when we have the bigger or more reactive molecules we know what we are doing.”

With more and more renewable energy sources, junior Dane Markegard says this can help keep up with the demand for power. 

Arianna Jewell and Dane Markegard conduct research during CSRI 2022
Arianna Jewell and Dane Markegard conduct research during CSRI 2022

“Right now we don’t have enough lithium and we can’t get enough lithium to make lithium-ion batteries to support a renewable energy grid based on solar and wind alone,” said Markegard, a junior from Minnesota. “So, these redox flow batteries that we are looking into are essential to supporting a grid and getting power overnight and when it’s not sunny.”

This work is part of a four-year grant from the National Science Foundation that includes about 30 researchers from Iowa and Kentucky. For Jewell and Markegard who are both interested in working in healthcare careers, they’re learning vital skills in the lab and lending a hand in making a difference for our planet.

“It feels really good, especially because one of the things I’m passionate about is environmental work,” said Jewell, a biochemistry and molecular biology (BMB) and neuroscience double major. “Coming here and doing this, it’s like I’m actually helping first-hand.”

“I’m part of a lab that’s doing a lot for the environment,” said Markegard, a BMB major. “It feels like we are doing real science instead of learning out of textbooks and I don’t think I would have had this research opportunity at a bigger school.”

This is just one of many research projects unfolding on the Cornell College campus. Fifty-one students and 19 faculty members are collaborating on intensive research projects across the liberal arts disciplines during the eight weeks of CSRI.