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Sustaining Resources

By Srila Nayak

Coastal Cutthroat Trout

This article is part of a series on how Oregon State scientists are working to mitigate climate change. Read more: Warm Oceans need Cool Science (introduction), Informing Policy and Quantifying Risk.

"Humanity is currently using the renewable resources of 1.5 Earths to meet our yearly demands for energy, food, shelter, and the things we do and buy," according to the Source: World Wildlife Fund.

While the scientific, technical and ecological issues behind natural-resource depletion are complex, there is overwhelming consensus that the path to sustainability lies in the humble battery. Efficient storage and conversion of energy will curtail our dependence on fossil fuels, maximize performance and preserve renewable energy sources.

Next-gen batteries

There is a worldwide race to make the next-generation energy storage device that costs less and has a higher energy density, and chemist David Ji is a frontrunner. Last year, he received the National Science Foundation CAREER Award—NSF’s most prestigious honor for outstanding young scientists. The award will support research that would broaden the field of battery chemistries by introducing potassium-ion batteries as alternatives to expensive lithium-ion batteries.

David Ji in front of black backdrop

David Ji, chemist and National Science Foundation CAREER Award winner

Since then Ji and his team have accelerated the pace of innovation in new battery technologies. They have successfully developed new potassium-ion and hydronium-ion batteries holding promise for more sustainable, high-power energy storage.

The world’s first hydronium-ion battery, Ji’s new invention uses the plentifully available sulfuric acid as the electrolyte doing away with the need for metals as battery charge carriers. Due to its properties, hydronium can discharge higher power when it comes in contact with electrode materials. Ji and his team are very excited over this new energy storage device because it can be used in stationery grid storage that runs on power generated from wind turbines and solar cells.

Ji has also contributed significantly to yet another revolutionary energy storage system—the potassium ion battery. Ji and his team have shown a broad array of bulk carbon structures can reversibly accommodate K-ions with high capacities and long cycling life. Ji’s scientific advance overturned the decades long assumption that potassium couldn’t work with graphite or other bulk carbon anodes in a battery. The battery has potential for energy storage in microgrids and solar-powered devices and offers many environmentally-friendly advantages over lithium-ion batteries: Potassium is more abundantly available at a lower cost, possesses a long cycling life and it does not require a different manufacturing process.

Green chemistry for high-performance materials

A renowned expert in the field of aqueous inorganic chemistry, May Nyman is making our lives significantly better.

Nyman’s research has led to advances in functional materials for environmental and energy applications that can clean up radioactive waste, degrade chemical warfare agents like nerve gas and support sustainable methods for nuclear fuel processing.

May Nyman in front of shrubbery

May Nyman, aqueous inorganic chemistry expert

Nyman is in the news for successfully isolating water soluble metal oxides, a discovery with many beneficial industrial and environmental applications. Until Nyman invented a process to capture highly stable, non-reactive metal oxides in water, scientists didn't know how to capture metal-oxo clusters in stable form and had struggled with the problem for decades.

Metal oxides help degrade air and water pollutants, and Nyman’s breakthrough allows industry to produce them with the absolute control needed for high-performance materials in electronic circuits.

Currently, Nyman’s group is exploring new chemistries to discover the cluster forms of other metals in the periodic table. If successful, they would be able to harness some of the most Earth-abundant and least-corrosive metals for building transformative energy and environmental technologies that will contribute to a healthy planet.

Transparent electronics beyond touchscreens

Globally renowned materials physicist Janet Tate works at the confluence of modern materials science and the nanotechnology industry. She has investigated the traits of a class of chalcogenide semiconductors of barium copper sulfide fluoride (BaCuSF) and its variants and derivatives. In collaboration with Douglas Keszler, distinguished professor of chemistry, she discovered unique properties of this class of semiconductors that helped Oregon State engineers devise some of the technology for brighter displays at higher resolutions in Apple's laptop retina screens.

Tate’s current research explores new properties in semiconductors by stabilizing materials and materials combinations. A member of the prestigious Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Tate and her students collaborate with the National Renewable Laboratory and other researchers from Harvard, Berkeley, SLAC, Colorado School of Mines and the University of Colorado.

Recently, Tate and her team succeeded in making metastable alloys of SnS and CaS and of SnSe and CaSe, materials of interest to thermoelectric and photovoltaic communities. The team was able to control the structure to manipulate the current-carrying ability and the light-absorption properties­, which can pave the path for efficient thermoelectric and photovoltaic technologies to tackle the current challenges of energy crisis and global warming.

At OSU, sustainable materials science has emerged as a vibrant and core strategic area of innovation and research to support sustainable practices. As catastrophic changes ravage the global environment, the work of scientists has never been more important.

***Read the rest of this series on how scientists at Oregon State are tackling global warming:

Warm Oceans need Cool Science (introduction)
Quantifying Risk
Informing Policy