Feng Lin, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, will use a new National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award to develop rechargeable batteries that he hopes could one day impact the energy market.

The five-year, $600,000 grant is supported by the Solid State and Materials Chemistry program in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Materials Research. His project is timely as scientists and engineers around the world work to make rechargeable batteries that are smaller, last longer, have faster charging speeds, and are safe. Universities, government labs, and private sector scientists all have an interest in the field as the rapid-growing electric vehicle and energy storage market ever increases.

“Energy storage is a vital technology to enable the widespread adoption of renewable energy and to accelerate the technological advancement toward negative carbon dioxide emissions,” Lin said in his proposal abstract to the NSF. The crux: Despite years of development, most commercial rechargeable lithium-ion batteries still rely on several cathode materials that are derived from intercalation materials discovered in the 1980s.

“In these conventional materials, there are defined pathways for lithium ions to transport,” added Lin, who is a member of the Virginia Tech College of Science faculty. “Recently, there have been exciting discoveries in new battery materials with disordered lithium-ion transport pathways. Unfortunately, these materials exhibit inferior battery performance compared to conventional materials, although theoretically they should provide much higher capacity.”

Lin also highlighted that these newly disordered materials could provide new design strategies toward more sustainable batteries, as expensive, resource-limited cobalt and nickel are not needed in these materials.

To build better lithium-ion batteries, though, one must first understand how individual battery components operate under battery usage conditions, and how they cooperate with each other to deliver desired battery performance metrics. The grant will allow Lin and his team to perform experiments to answer these questions at various U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) labs, including Argonne National Lab, Brookhaven National Lab, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Oak Ridge National Lab, and SLAC National Accelerator Lab.

These collaborations, already in place by Lin and his team, have enabled his group to pursue multifaceted research projects at the crossroads of interdisciplinary energy research and materials discovery.

As with untold numbers of businesses, organizations, and universities, the COVID-19 pandemic that whipped around the world from early 2020 to mid-2021 had stalled some of Lin’s research into batteries. “Our projects have been impacted, mostly caused by the need of creating shift schedules for our group members,” Lin said. “Additionally, we have not been able to travel to DOE national labs to perform research. But we will soon ramp up our exciting activities in the summer thanks to the science surrounding COVID-19 vaccines.”

Among members of the Lin Lab working on this project are graduate students Meng Jiang and Yuxin Zhang, both in chemistry, and Callum Connor, a third-year student majoring in materials science engineering in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering.

“These materials are exciting and have remained largely unexplored. We expect to increase our team capacity soon to accelerate the new materials discovery,” said Lin, who is a member of the Macromolecules Innovation Institute at Virginia Tech and an affiliated faculty member of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

The CAREER grant is the NSF’s most prestigious award, and it is awarded to creative junior faculty who are expected to become future academic leaders.

As with all CAREER awards, Lin included educational efforts in his proposal. Lin will use funding for outreach to area K-12 schools, with a special focus on the dyslexic student population. “Many dyslexic students have been found to be better than their peers at manipulating 3-D objects in their minds and pattern recognition in complex systems, two strengths important to STEM fields,” Lin said.

Separately, Lin will also establish a sustainable educational program between Virginia Tech and national labs, allowing undergraduate students to perform research in national labs.

Lin joined the Virginia Tech Chemistry community in 2016. He earned a bachelor’s degree in materials and engineering from Tianjin University in China in 2009 and a Ph.D. degree in materials science from Colorado School of Mines in 2012. From there, Lin worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and as a senior member of technical staff at a battery company, both in the Bay Area of California.

Lin’s research programs have been funded by NSF, DOE, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the American Chemical Society, Oak Ridge Associated Universities, private foundations, and Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, and the College of Science’s Lay Nam Chang Dean’s Discovery Fund.

Corrin Lundquist, public relations specialist and assistant to the chair in the Virginia Tech Department of Chemistry, contributed to this report.

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