URI chemist awarded $480,000 contract to improve performance of electric car batteries at low temperatures

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 27, 2020 – For nearly 20 years, Brett Lucht has researched numerous improvements to lithium-ion batteries, exploring ways to extend the batteries’ calendar life and improve general performance.

Now Lucht, a professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, is undertaking a three-year study to improve battery performance at low temperatures as part of a $480,000 sub-contract with Brookhaven National Laboratory. The research, funded through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, will be important to battery manufacturers, the automotive industry and the research community.

“The performance of batteries at low temperatures, especially for charging, is one of the major issues for the automotive industry,” says Lucht, of South Kingstown, R.I., a world-renowned expert on lithium-ion batters whose research focuses on electric cars. “People living in Wisconsin and in Minnesota want their electric vehicles to function when it’s negative-10 degrees outside. And if you’re living in Florida, you may want to drive up and see your family in New Jersey in the winter. Even if you’re not immediately affected, it can create a doubt about whether the vehicle is going to perform.”

Lucht’s research interests center on the electrolyte liquid in lithium-ion batteries and its interface with the positive and negative electrodes. Electrolyte promotes the movement of lithium ions between the electrodes, allowing the battery to discharge energy and recharge.

At low temperatures, there’s a higher resistance of lithium ions traveling to the negative electrode, which can result in lithium metal plating on the surface of the graphite negative electrode, Lucht said. “The presence of the lithium metal reduces the calendar life of the battery,” he says, “and could result in safety issues such as fire or explosion.”

Low temperatures also affect the rate at which batteries can be charged and decreases the driving range between charges. “The conductivity of the liquid electrolyte decreases with decreasing temperatures. In addition, the resistance of the interface between the electrode and the liquid increases. So, basically it is harder for the lithium ions to go back and forth.

“We’re trying to understand the cause of the poor performance and then systematically design better electrolytes and/or interfaces between the electrolyte and the electrodes to improve the problem,” he says.

Lucht previously studied low-temperature performance in the batteries for military aircraft operating in Alaska in the winter and for space applications. Working with Yardney Technical Products, now EaglePicher Yardney, he helped develop novel electrolyte formulations that help improve performance.

Over the years, Lucht’s research has attracted more than $12 million in external funding and he has active contracts and grants totaling more than $1 million. He has worked regularly with government agencies such as the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, and private corporations including DuPont, Procter & Gamble, Duracell, BASF, and Samsung.

He is currently working on a two-year, $720,000 contract with the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium, a collaborative organization of FCA US LLC, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors. In collaboration with battery manufacturer Gotion, Lucht is studying the development of an electrolyte system that would significantly reduce gas generation in the battery. The grant is supported by the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Lucht’s work with lithium-ion batteries pre-dates the electric car boom. As a young assistant professor at URI with experience in lithium electrolytes, he got involved with Yardney, a Rhode Island specialty battery manufacturer that does work for the military and NASA. “Around 2010 when electric vehicles took off, I was in the right place at the right time. I already had 10 years of experience in an area that was kind of a niche area. It’s become the hot topic.”

Twenty years later, it has become a rewarding career, he says.

“I think the green economy is an important thing for our country and our state. Batteries are a very important contribution, both in the sense of consumer electronics, electric vehicles and in renewable energy,” he says. “For me personally, I get a lot of enjoyment from working in an area that benefits both our local economy and the world as a whole.”

And now Lucht has seen lithium-ion battery research recognized with a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In October, John Goodenough of the University of Texas at Austin, M. Stanley Whittingham of Binghamton University in New York, and Akira Yoshino of Japan were honored for their research that led to a powerful, lightweight, rechargeable battery that revolutionized the tech world, from mobile phones to laptops to electric vehicles.

For researchers in the field, it was an important moment, says Lucht, a board member of the Battery Division of the Electrochemical Society and associate editor of the society’s scholarly journal.

“I went to a big battery meeting the week after the Nobel prizes were announced,” he says. “The whole community was extremely excited. It’s something the community has been looking forward to for several years.”