Daniel (Dan) Steingart joined the faculty in February 2013 as an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the Andlinger Center. Previously, he was on the faculty of the City College of New York, where he was an assistant professor of chemical engineering with a specialization in energy systems. He was recently named a recipient of the Andlinger Innovation Fund for a collaborative project with Professor Bruce Koel of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Professor Steingart is currently teaching a new course, MAE 424/ENE 424, Energy Storage Systems.
Tell me about the project you’ve undertaken with Professor Bruce Koel. What do you hope to accomplish?
This project allows me look at an aspect of lithium-ion batteries that I haven’t explored in much detail before. There is a process that slowly consumes lithium in a way that’s irreversible in a battery, and it ultimately determines the cycle life of the system. It takes place at a nanoscopic layer on the anode called the solid electrolyte interphase layer (SEI). The SEI slows the reaction down to a certain degree. For thirty years, industry has been trying to engineer the best layer possible, but until the past few years it’s been impossible to visualize the layer forming. In the experiments I’m designing with Bruce Koel and a researcher at IBM-Yorktown, we’ll use an instrument called a low energy electron microscope to watch the layer forming and understand its chemical and physical structure. This information will allow us to more rationally engineer a battery to increase the number of charge/discharge cycles.
How will this affect research being conducted by others in the field?
There are many researchers trying to template the design rather than letting the SEI layer form on its own. Our research will give them a bit more insight into what the structure should look like, and allow more clarity in their designs.
What are the challenges in making battery-powered vehicles more common?
Gasoline is hard to unseat because it works so well. It’s cheap, easy to transport, surprisingly safe, and it has 120-year head start on electric vehicles in terms of engineering and structure. The electric vehicle is such a great symbol of what energy can do, but from an engineering and economic point of view it’s a challenge. The overall cost of ownership has to be similar to that of a gasoline engine, so we have to think not only about the chemistry but also about designing a battery such that it can be easily maintained.
I’m currently investigating a battery designed so that part of it can flow in and out like a fuel. Instead of pumping gas into it, you would pump a battery material. Chemical fuels are far more efficiently transferred than electricity. This idea of chemically refueling the battery and then having it electrically discharge isn’t new; it has been pursued in terms of hydrogen fuel cells for a long time, but storing and isolating hydrogen has always been a trick. This new approach would use zinc, iron, or aluminum.
What are some other applications for these types of batteries?
The application I’m really interested in is grid-scale storage. It would be great if everyone had a little bit of energy storage at home. Having more energy than the grid can supply at a given moment is useful for all sorts of reasons, especially disaster assurance. In an event as severe as Hurricane Sandy or as inconvenient as a blackout, a battery would provide power for hours. When an appliance is in use, some of the electricity would come from the grid and some would come from the battery, similar to the way a hybrid car works. The utility company would not see peaks of use, and operating in this flat mode could enable them to charge the consumer less for electricity in return. It’s a challenging engineering problem and we’ve never really had electric energy storage on this scale.
What do you like best about teaching undergraduates?
What I like best are the relationships I build with students. A precocious student may take issue with a point I make in class and the conversation grows from there. Students may realize they enjoy a subject but not know what to do next, and it’s a lot of fun to help them figure out how to apply what I’ve taught and choose the right career. Half of my job is teaching and half is helping to direct their talents.
You’re planning the Andlinger Center’s Highlight Seminar Series* for the upcoming year; how will it be different from this past year?
There is more of a focus on the environment this year, rather than just energy. The seminars will cover a range of topics, including water usage as it relates to energy production, biofuels, land remediation, and carbon capture.
*Editor’s note: See Spring 2013 newsletter for a list of 2013-14 Highlight Seminars