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    Reversing the charge

    Owners of electric vehicles (EVs) are accustomed to plugging into charging stations at home and at work and filling up their batteries with electricity from the power grid. But someday soon, when these drivers plug in, their cars will also have the capacity to reverse the flow and send electrons back to the grid. As the number of EVs climbs, the fleet’s batteries could serve as a cost-effective, large-scale energy source, with potentially dramatic impacts on the energy transition, according to a new paper published by an MIT team in the journal Energy Advances.

    “At scale, vehicle-to-grid (V2G) can boost renewable energy growth, displacing the need for stationary energy storage and decreasing reliance on firm [always-on] generators, such as natural gas, that are traditionally used to balance wind and solar intermittency,” says Jim Owens, lead author and a doctoral student in the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering. Additional authors include Emre Gençer, a principal research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), and Ian Miller, a research specialist for MITEI at the time of the study.

    The group’s work is the first comprehensive, systems-based analysis of future power systems, drawing on a novel mix of computational models integrating such factors as carbon emission goals, variable renewable energy (VRE) generation, and costs of building energy storage, production, and transmission infrastructure.

    “We explored not just how EVs could provide service back to the grid — thinking of these vehicles almost like energy storage on wheels — but also the value of V2G applications to the entire energy system and if EVs could reduce the cost of decarbonizing the power system,” says Gençer. “The results were surprising; I personally didn’t believe we’d have so much potential here.”

    Displacing new infrastructure

    As the United States and other nations pursue stringent goals to limit carbon emissions, electrification of transportation has taken off, with the rate of EV adoption rapidly accelerating. (Some projections show EVs supplanting internal combustion vehicles over the next 30 years.) With the rise of emission-free driving, though, there will be increased demand for energy. “The challenge is ensuring both that there’s enough electricity to charge the vehicles and that this electricity is coming from renewable sources,” says Gençer.

    But solar and wind energy is intermittent. Without adequate backup for these sources, such as stationary energy storage facilities using lithium-ion batteries, for instance, or large-scale, natural gas- or hydrogen-fueled power plants, achieving clean energy goals will prove elusive. More vexing, costs for building the necessary new energy infrastructure runs to the hundreds of billions.

    This is precisely where V2G can play a critical, and welcome, role, the researchers reported. In their case study of a theoretical New England power system meeting strict carbon constraints, for instance, the team found that participation from just 13.9 percent of the region’s 8 million light-duty (passenger) EVs displaced 14.7 gigawatts of stationary energy storage. This added up to $700 million in savings — the anticipated costs of building new storage capacity.

    Their paper also described the role EV batteries could play at times of peak demand, such as hot summer days. “V2G technology has the ability to inject electricity back into the system to cover these episodes, so we don’t need to install or invest in additional natural gas turbines,” says Owens. “The way that EVs and V2G can influence the future of our power systems is one of the most exciting and novel aspects of our study.”

    Modeling power

    To investigate the impacts of V2G on their hypothetical New England power system, the researchers integrated their EV travel and V2G service models with two of MITEI’s existing modeling tools: the Sustainable Energy System Analysis Modeling Environment (SESAME) to project vehicle fleet and electricity demand growth, and GenX, which models the investment and operation costs of electricity generation, storage, and transmission systems. They incorporated such inputs as different EV participation rates, costs of generation for conventional and renewable power suppliers, charging infrastructure upgrades, travel demand for vehicles, changes in electricity demand, and EV battery costs.

    Their analysis found benefits from V2G applications in power systems (in terms of displacing energy storage and firm generation) at all levels of carbon emission restrictions, including one with no emissions caps at all. However, their models suggest that V2G delivers the greatest value to the power system when carbon constraints are most aggressive — at 10 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour load. Total system savings from V2G ranged from $183 million to $1,326 million, reflecting EV participation rates between 5 percent and 80 percent.

    “Our study has begun to uncover the inherent value V2G has for a future power system, demonstrating that there is a lot of money we can save that would otherwise be spent on storage and firm generation,” says Owens.

    Harnessing V2G

    For scientists seeking ways to decarbonize the economy, the vision of millions of EVs parked in garages or in office spaces and plugged into the grid for 90 percent of their operating lives proves an irresistible provocation. “There is all this storage sitting right there, a huge available capacity that will only grow, and it is wasted unless we take full advantage of it,” says Gençer.

    This is not a distant prospect. Startup companies are currently testing software that would allow two-way communication between EVs and grid operators or other entities. With the right algorithms, EVs would charge from and dispatch energy to the grid according to profiles tailored to each car owner’s needs, never depleting the battery and endangering a commute.

    “We don’t assume all vehicles will be available to send energy back to the grid at the same time, at 6 p.m. for instance, when most commuters return home in the early evening,” says Gençer. He believes that the vastly varied schedules of EV drivers will make enough battery power available to cover spikes in electricity use over an average 24-hour period. And there are other potential sources of battery power down the road, such as electric school buses that are employed only for short stints during the day and then sit idle.

    The MIT team acknowledges the challenges of V2G consumer buy-in. While EV owners relish a clean, green drive, they may not be as enthusiastic handing over access to their car’s battery to a utility or an aggregator working with power system operators. Policies and incentives would help.

    “Since you’re providing a service to the grid, much as solar panel users do, you could be paid for your participation, and paid at a premium when electricity prices are very high,” says Gençer.

    “People may not be willing to participate ’round the clock, but if we have blackout scenarios like in Texas last year, or hot-day congestion on transmission lines, maybe we can turn on these vehicles for 24 to 48 hours, sending energy back to the system,” adds Owens. “If there’s a power outage and people wave a bunch of money at you, you might be willing to talk.”

    “Basically, I think this comes back to all of us being in this together, right?” says Gençer. “As you contribute to society by giving this service to the grid, you will get the full benefit of reducing system costs, and also help to decarbonize the system faster and to a greater extent.”

    Actionable insights

    Owens, who is building his dissertation on V2G research, is now investigating the potential impact of heavy-duty electric vehicles in decarbonizing the power system. “The last-mile delivery trucks of companies like Amazon and FedEx are likely to be the earliest adopters of EVs,” Owen says. “They are appealing because they have regularly scheduled routes during the day and go back to the depot at night, which makes them very useful for providing electricity and balancing services in the power system.”

    Owens is committed to “providing insights that are actionable by system planners, operators, and to a certain extent, investors,” he says. His work might come into play in determining what kind of charging infrastructure should be built, and where.

    “Our analysis is really timely because the EV market has not yet been developed,” says Gençer. “This means we can share our insights with vehicle manufacturers and system operators — potentially influencing them to invest in V2G technologies, avoiding the costs of building utility-scale storage, and enabling the transition to a cleaner future. It’s a huge win, within our grasp.”

    The research for this study was funded by MITEI’s Future Energy Systems Center. More

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    Engineers solve a mystery on the path to smaller, lighter batteries

    A discovery by MIT researchers could finally unlock the door to the design of a new kind of rechargeable lithium battery that is more lightweight, compact, and safe than current versions, and that has been pursued by labs around the world for years.

    The key to this potential leap in battery technology is replacing the liquid electrolyte that sits between the positive and negative electrodes with a much thinner, lighter layer of solid ceramic material, and replacing one of the electrodes with solid lithium metal. This would greatly reduce the overall size and weight of the battery and remove the safety risk associated with liquid electrolytes, which are flammable. But that quest has been beset with one big problem: dendrites.

    Dendrites, whose name comes from the Latin for branches, are projections of metal that can build up on the lithium surface and penetrate into the solid electrolyte, eventually crossing from one electrode to the other and shorting out the battery cell. Researchers haven’t been able to agree on what gives rise to these metal filaments, nor has there been much progress on how to prevent them and thus make lightweight solid-state batteries a practical option.

    The new research, being published today in the journal Joule in a paper by MIT Professor Yet-Ming Chiang, graduate student Cole Fincher, and five others at MIT and Brown University, seems to resolve the question of what causes dendrite formation. It also shows how dendrites can be prevented from crossing through the electrolyte.

    Chiang says in the group’s earlier work, they made a “surprising and unexpected” finding, which was that the hard, solid electrolyte material used for a solid-state battery can be penetrated by lithium, which is a very soft metal, during the process of charging and discharging the battery, as ions of lithium move between the two sides.

    This shuttling back and forth of ions causes the volume of the electrodes to change. That inevitably causes stresses in the solid electrolyte, which has to remain fully in contact with both of the electrodes that it is sandwiched between. “To deposit this metal, there has to be an expansion of the volume because you’re adding new mass,” Chiang says. “So, there’s an increase in volume on the side of the cell where the lithium is being deposited. And if there are even microscopic flaws present, this will generate a pressure on those flaws that can cause cracking.”

    Those stresses, the team has now shown, cause the cracks that allow dendrites to form. The solution to the problem turns out to be more stress, applied in just the right direction and with the right amount of force.

    While previously, some researchers thought that dendrites formed by a purely electrochemical process, rather than a mechanical one, the team’s experiments demonstrate that it is mechanical stresses that cause the problem.

    The process of dendrite formation normally takes place deep within the opaque materials of the battery cell and cannot be observed directly, so Fincher developed a way of making thin cells using a transparent electrolyte, allowing the whole process to be directly seen and recorded. “You can see what happens when you put a compression on the system, and you can see whether or not the dendrites behave in a way that’s commensurate with a corrosion process or a fracture process,” he says.

    The team demonstrated that they could directly manipulate the growth of dendrites simply by applying and releasing pressure, causing the dendrites to zig and zag in perfect alignment with the direction of the force.

    Applying mechanical stresses to the solid electrolyte doesn’t eliminate the formation of dendrites, but it does control the direction of their growth. This means they can be directed to remain parallel to the two electrodes and prevented from ever crossing to the other side, and thus rendered harmless.

    In their tests, the researchers used pressure induced by bending the material, which was formed into a beam with a weight at one end. But they say that in practice, there could be many different ways of producing the needed stress. For example, the electrolyte could be made with two layers of material that have different amounts of thermal expansion, so that there is an inherent bending of the material, as is done in some thermostats.

    Another approach would be to “dope” the material with atoms that would become embedded in it, distorting it and leaving it in a permanently stressed state. This is the same method used to produce the super-hard glass used in the screens of smart phones and tablets, Chiang explains. And the amount of pressure needed is not extreme: The experiments showed that pressures of 150 to 200 megapascals were sufficient to stop the dendrites from crossing the electrolyte.

    The required pressure is “commensurate with stresses that are commonly induced in commercial film growth processes and many other manufacturing processes,” so should not be difficult to implement in practice, Fincher adds.

    In fact, a different kind of stress, called stack pressure, is often applied to battery cells, by essentially squishing the material in the direction perpendicular to the battery’s plates — somewhat like compressing a sandwich by putting a weight on top of it. It was thought that this might help prevent the layers from separating. But the experiments have now demonstrated that pressure in that direction actually exacerbates dendrite formation. “We showed that this type of stack pressure actually accelerates dendrite-induced failure,” Fincher says.

    What is needed instead is pressure along the plane of the plates, as if the sandwich were being squeezed from the sides. “What we have shown in this work is that when you apply a compressive force you can force the dendrites to travel in the direction of the compression,” Fincher says, and if that direction is along the plane of the plates, the dendrites “will never get to the other side.”

    That could finally make it practical to produce batteries using solid electrolyte and metallic lithium electrodes. Not only would these pack more energy into a given volume and weight, but they would eliminate the need for liquid electrolytes, which are flammable materials.

    Having demonstrated the basic principles involved, the team’s next step will be to try to apply these to the creation of a functional prototype battery, Chiang says, and then to figure out exactly what manufacturing processes would be needed to produce such batteries in quantity. Though they have filed for a patent, the researchers don’t plan to commercialize the system themselves, he says, as there are already companies working on the development of solid-state batteries. “I would say this is an understanding of failure modes in solid-state batteries that we believe the industry needs to be aware of and try to use in designing better products,” he says.

    The research team included Christos Athanasiou and Brian Sheldon at Brown University, and Colin Gilgenbach, Michael Wang, and W. Craig Carter at MIT. The work was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the U.S. Department of Energy. More

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    Nonabah Lane, Navajo educator and environmental sustainability specialist with numerous ties to MIT, dies at 46

    Nonabah Lane, a Navajo educator and environmental sustainability specialist with numerous MIT ties to MIT, passed away in October. She was 46.

    Lane had recently been an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow; MIT Solve 2019 Indigenous Communities Fellow; Department of Urban Studies and Planning guest lecturer and community partner; community partner with the PKG Public Service Center, Terrascope, and D-Lab; and a speaker at this year’s MIT Energy Week.

    Lane was a passionate sustainability specialist with experience spearheading successful environmental civic science projects focused in agriculture, water science, and energy. Committed to mitigating water pollutants and environmental hazards in tribal communities, she held extensive knowledge of environmental policy and Indigenous water rights. 

    Lane’s clans were Ta’neezahnii (Tangled People), born for Tł’izíłání (Manygoats People), and her maternal grandfathers are the Kiiyaa’aanii (Towering House People), and paternal grandfathers are Bįįh Bitoo’nii (Deer Spring People).

    Lane was a member of the Navajo Nation, Nenahnezad Chapter. At Navajo Power, she worked as the lead developer for solar and energy storage projects to benefit tribal communities on the Navajo Nation and other tribal nations in New Mexico. Prior to joining Navajo Power, Lane co-founded Navajo Ethno-Agriculture, a farm that teaches Navajo culture through traditional farming and bilingual education. Lane also launched a campaign to partner with local Navajo schools and tribal colleges to create their own water-testing capabilities and translate data into information to local farmers.

    “I had the opportunity to collaborate closely with Nonabah on a range of initiatives she was championing on energy, food, justice, water, Indigenous leadership, youth STEM, and more. She was innovative, entrepreneurial, inclusive, heartfelt, and positively impacted MIT on every visit to campus. She articulated important things that needed saying and expanded people’s thinking constantly. We will all miss her insights and teamwork,” says Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88, MIT Corporation life member; third U.S. chief technology officer and assistant to the president in the Office of Science and Technology Policy; and founder and CEO of shift7.

    In March 2019, Lane and her family — parents Gloria and Harry and brother Bruce — welcomed students and staff of the MIT Terrascope first-year learning community to their farm, where they taught unique, hands-on lessons about traditional Diné farming and spirituality. She then continued to collaborate with Terrascope, helping staff and students develop community-based work with partners in Navajo Nation. 

    Terrascope associate director and lecturer Ari Epstein says, “Nonabah was an inspiring person and a remarkable collaborator; she had a talent for connecting and communicating across disciplinary, organizational, and cultural differences, and she was generous with her expertise and knowledge. We will miss her very much.”

    Lane came to MIT in May 2019 for the MIT Solve Indigenous Communities Fellowship and Solve at MIT event, representing Navajo Ethno-Agriculture with her mother, Gloria Lane, and brother, Bruce Lane, and later serving as a Fellow Leadership Group member. 

    “Nonabah was an incredible individual who worked tirelessly to better all of her communities, whether it was back home on the Navajo Nation, here at MIT Solve, or supporting her family and friends,” says Alex Amouyel, executive director of MIT Solve. “More than that, Nonabah was a passionate mentor and caring friend of so many, carefully tending the next generation of Indigenous innovators, entrepreneurs, and change-makers. Her loss will be felt deeply by the MIT community, and her legacy of heartfelt service will not be forgotten.”

    She continued to be heavily involved across the MIT campus — named as a 2019 Media Lab Director’s Fellow, leading a workshop at the 2020 MIT Media Lab Festival of Learning on modernizing Navajo foods using traditional food science and cultural narrative, speaking at the 2022 MIT Energy Conference “Accelerating the Clean Energy Transition,” and taking part in the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) innovation weekly co-working groups for Covid-response related innovations. 

    “My CBA colleagues and I enjoyed working with Nonabah on rapid-prototyping for the Covid response, on expanding access to digital fabrication, and on ambitious proposals for connecting emerging technology with Indigenous knowledge,” says Professor Neil Gershenfeld, director, MIT Center for Bits and Atoms.

    Nonabah also guest lectured for the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning’s Indigenous Environmental Planning class in Spring 2022. Professors Lawrence Susskind and Gabriella Carolini and teaching assistant Dení López led the class in cooperation with Elizabeth Rule, Chickasaw Nation member and professor at American University. 

    Carolini shares, on behalf of Susskind and the class, “During this time, our teaching team and students from a broad range of fields at MIT had the deep honor of learning from and with the inimitable Nonabah Lane. Nonabah was a dedicated and critical partner to our class, representing in this instance Navajo Power — but of course, also so much more. Her broad experiences and knowledge — working with fellow Navajo members on energy and agriculture sovereignty, as well as in advancing entrepreneurship and innovation — reflected the urgency Nonabah saw in meeting the challenges and opportunities for sustainable and equitable futures in Navajo nation and beyond. She was a pure life force, running on all fires, and brought to our class a dedicated drive to educate, learn, and extend our reference points beyond current knowledge frontiers.” 

    Three MIT students — junior Isabella Gandara, Alexander Gerszten ’22, and Paul Picciano MS ’22 — who worked closely with Lane on a project with Navajo Power, recalled how she shared herself with them in so many ways, through her truly exceptional work ethic, stories about herself and her family, and the care and thought that she put into her ventures. They noted there was always something new to feel inspired by when in her presence. 

    “The PKG Public Service Center mourns the passing of Nonabah Lane. Navajo Ethno-Agriculture is a valued PKG Center partner that offers MIT undergraduate students the opportunity to support community-led projects with the Diné Community on Navajo Nation. Nonabah inspired students to examine broad social and technical issues that impact Indigenous communities in Navajo Nation and beyond, in many cases leaving an indelible mark on their personal and professional paths,” says Jill S. Bassett, associate dean and director of the PKG Public Service Center.

    Lane was a Sequoyah Fellow of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and remained actively engaged in the AISES community by mentoring young people interested in the fields of science, engineering, agriculture, and energy. Over the years, Lane collaborated with leaders across tribal lands and beyond on projects related to agriculture, energy, sustainable chemicals, and finance. Lane had an enormous positive impact on many through her accomplishments and also the countless meaningful connections she helped to form among people in diverse fields.

    Donations may be made to a memorial fund organized by Navajo Power, PBC in honor of Nonabah Lane, in support of Navajo Ethno-Agriculture, the Native American nonprofit she co-founded and cared deeply for. More

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    New materials could enable longer-lasting implantable batteries

    For the last few decades, battery research has largely focused on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which are used in everything from electric cars to portable electronics and have improved dramatically in terms of affordability and capacity. But nonrechargeable batteries have seen little improvement during that time, despite their crucial role in many important uses such as implantable medical devices like pacemakers.

    Now, researchers at MIT have come up with a way to improve the energy density of these nonrechargeable, or “primary,” batteries. They say it could enable up to a 50 percent increase in useful lifetime, or a corresponding decrease in size and weight for a given amount of power or energy capacity, while also improving safety, with little or no increase in cost.

    The new findings, which involve substituting the conventionally inactive battery electrolyte with a material that is active for energy delivery, are reported today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper by MIT Kavanaugh Postdoctoral Fellow Haining Gao, graduate student Alejandro Sevilla, associate professor of mechanical engineering Betar Gallant, and four others at MIT and Caltech.

    Replacing the battery in a pacemaker or other medical implant requires a surgical procedure, so any increase in the longevity of their batteries could have a significant impact on the patient’s quality of life, Gallant says. Primary batteries are used for such essential applications because they can provide about three times as much energy for a given size and weight as rechargeable batteries.

    That difference in capacity, Gao says, makes primary batteries “critical for applications where charging is not possible or is impractical.” The new materials work at human body temperature, so would be suitable for medical implants. In addition to implantable devices, with further development to make the batteries operate efficiently at cooler temperatures, applications could also include sensors in tracking devices for shipments, for example to ensure that temperature and humidity requirements for food or drug shipments are properly maintained throughout the shipping process. Or, they might be used in remotely operated aerial or underwater vehicles that need to remain ready for deployment over long periods.

    Pacemaker batteries typically last from five to 10 years, and even less if they require high-voltage functions such as defibrillation. Yet for such batteries, Gao says, the technology is considered mature, and “there haven’t been any major innovations in fundamental cell chemistries in the past 40 years.”

    The key to the team’s innovation is a new kind of electrolyte — the material that lies between the two electrical poles of the battery, the cathode and the anode, and allows charge carriers to pass through from one side to the other. Using a new liquid fluorinated compound, the team found that they could combine some of the functions of the cathode and the electrolyte in one compound, called a catholyte. This allows for saving much of the weight of typical primary batteries, Gao says.

    While there are other materials besides this new compound that could theoretically function in a similar catholyte role in a high-capacity battery, Gallant explains, those materials have lower inherent voltages that do not match those of the remainder of the material in a conventional pacemaker battery, a type known as CFx. Because the overall output from the battery can’t be more than that of the lesser of the two electrode materials,  the extra capacity would go to waste because of the voltage mismatch. But with the new material, “one of the key merits of our fluorinated liquids is that their voltage aligns very well with that of CFx,” Gallant says.

    In a conventional  CFx battery, the liquid electrolyte is essential because it allows charged particles to pass through from one electrode to the other. But “those electrolytes are actually chemically inactive, so they’re basically dead weight,” Gao says. This means about 50 percent of the battery’s key components, mainly the electrolyte, is inactive material. But in the new design with the fluorinated catholyte material, the amount of dead weight can be reduced to about 20 percent, she says.

    The new cells also provide safety improvements over other kinds of proposed chemistries that would use toxic and corrosive catholyte materials, which their formula does not, Gallant says. And preliminary tests have demonstrated a stable shelf life over more than a year, an important characteristic for primary batteries, she says.

    So far, the team has not yet experimentally achieved the full 50 percent improvement in energy density predicted by their analysis. They have demonstrated a 20 percent improvement, which in itself would be an important gain for some applications, Gallant says. The design of the cell itself has not yet been fully optimized, but the researchers can project the cell performance based on the performance of the active material itself. “We can see the projected cell-level performance when it’s scaled up can reach around 50 percent higher than the CFx cell,” she says. Achieving that level experimentally is the team’s next goal.

    Sevilla, a doctoral student in the mechanical engineering department, will be focusing on that work in the coming year. “I was brought into this project to try to understand some of the limitations of why we haven’t been able to attain the full energy density possible,” he says. “My role has been trying to fill in the gaps in terms of understanding the underlying reaction.”

    One big advantage of the new material, Gao says, is that it can easily be integrated into existing battery manufacturing processes, as a simple substitution of one material for another. Preliminary discussions with manufacturers confirm this potentially easy substitution, Gao says. The basic starting material, used for other purposes, has already been scaled up for production, she says, and its price is comparable to that of the materials currently used in CFx batteries. The cost of batteries using the new material is likely to be comparable to the existing batteries as well, she says. The team has already applied for a patent on the catholyte, and they expect that the medical applications are likely to be the first to be commercialized, perhaps with a full-scale prototype ready for testing in real devices within about a year.

    Further down the road, other applications could likely take advantage of the new materials as well, such as smart water or gas meters that can be read out remotely, or devices like EZPass transponders, increasing their usable lifetime, the researchers say. Power for drone aircraft or undersea vehicles would require higher power and so may take longer to be developed. Other uses could include batteries for equipment used at remote sites, such as drilling rigs for oil and gas, including devices sent down into the wells to monitor conditions.

    The team also included Gustavo Hobold, Aaron Melemed, and Rui Guo at MIT and Simon Jones at Caltech. The work was supported by MIT Lincoln Laboratory and the Army Research Office. More

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    In nanotube science, is boron nitride the new carbon?

    Engineers at MIT and the University of Tokyo have produced centimeter-scale structures, large enough for the eye to see, that are packed with hundreds of billions of hollow aligned fibers, or nanotubes, made from hexagonal boron nitride.

    Hexagonal boron nitride, or hBN, is a single-atom-thin material that has been coined “white graphene” for its transparent appearance and its similarity to carbon-based graphene in molecular structure and strength. It can also withstand higher temperatures than graphene, and is electrically insulating, rather than conductive. When hBN is rolled into nanometer-scale tubes, or nanotubes, its exceptional properties are significantly enhanced.

    The team’s results, published today in the journal ACS Nano, provide a route toward fabricating aligned boron nitride nanotubes (A-BNNTs) in bulk. The researchers plan to harness the technique to fabricate bulk-scale arrays of these nanotubes, which can then be combined with other materials to make stronger, more heat-resistant composites, for instance to shield space structures and hypersonic aircraft.

    As hBN is transparent and electrically insulating, the team also envisions incorporating the BNNTs into transparent windows and using them to electrically insulate sensors within electronic devices. The team is also investigating ways to weave the nanofibers into membranes for water filtration and for “blue energy” — a concept for renewable energy in which electricity is produced from the ionic filtering of salt water into fresh water.

    Brian Wardle, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, likens the team’s results to scientists’ decades-long, ongoing pursuit of manufacturing bulk-scale carbon nanotubes.

    “In 1991, a single carbon nanotube was identified as an interesting thing, but it’s been 30 years getting to bulk aligned carbon nanotubes, and the world’s not even fully there yet,” Wardle says. “With the work we’re doing, we’ve just short-circuited about 20 years in getting to bulk-scale versions of aligned boron nitride nanotubes.”

    Wardle is the senior author of the new study, which includes lead author and MIT research scientist Luiz Acauan, former MIT postdoc Haozhe Wang, and collaborators at the University of Tokyo.

    A vision, aligned

    Like graphene, hexagonal boron nitride has a molecular structure resembling chicken wire. In graphene, this chicken wire configuration is made entirely of carbon atoms, arranged in a repeating pattern of hexagons. For hBN, the hexagons are composed of alternating atoms of boron and nitrogen. In recent years, researchers have found that two-dimensional sheets of hBN exhibit exceptional properties of strength, stiffness, and resilience at high temperatures. When sheets of hBN are rolled into nanotube form, these properties are further enhanced, particularly when the nanotubes are aligned, like tiny trees in a densely packed forest.

    But finding ways to synthesize stable, high quality BNNTs has proven challenging. A handful of efforts to do so have produced low-quality, nonaligned fibers.

    “If you can align them, you have much better chance of harnessing BNNTs properties at the bulk scale to make actual physical devices, composites, and membranes,” Wardle says.

    In 2020, Rong Xiang and colleagues at the University of Tokyo found they could produce high-quality boron nitride nanotubes by first using a conventional approach of chemical vapor deposition to grow a forest of short, few micron-long carbon nanotubes. They then coated the carbon-based forest with “precursors” of boron and nitrogen gas, which when baked in an oven at high temperatures crystallized onto the carbon nanotubes to form high-quality nanotubes of hexagonal boron nitride with carbon nanotubes inside.

    Burning scaffolds

    In the new study, Wardle and Acauan have extend and scale Xiang’s approach, essentially removing the underlying carbon nanotubes and leaving the long boron nitride nanotubes to stand on their own. The team drew on the expertise of Wardle’s group, which has focused for years on fabricating high-quality aligned arrays of carbon nanotubes. With their current work, the researchers looked for ways to tweak the temperatures and pressures of the chemical vapor deposition process in order to remove the carbon nanotubes while leaving the boron nitride nanotubes intact.

    “The first few times we did it, it was completely ugly garbage,” Wardle recalls. “The tubes curled up into a ball, and they didn’t work.”

    Eventually, the team hit on a combination of temperatures, pressures, and precursors that did the trick. With this combination of processes, the researchers first reproduced the steps that Xiang took to synthesize the boron-nitride-coated carbon nanotubes. As hBN is resistant to higher temperatures than graphene, the team then cranked up the heat to burn away the underlying black carbon nanotube scaffold, while leaving the transparent, freestanding boron nitride nanotubes intact.
    By using carbon nanotubes as a scaffold, MIT engineers grow forests of “white graphene” that emerge (in MIT pattern) after burning away the black carbon scaffold. Courtesy of the researchersIn microscopic images, the team observed clear crystalline structures — evidence that the boron nitride nanotubes have a high quality. The structures were also dense: Within a square centimeter, the researchers were able to synthesize a forest of more than 100 billion aligned boron nitride nanotubes, that measured about a millimeter in height — large enough to be visible by eye. By nanotube engineering standards, these dimensions are considered to be “bulk” in scale.

    “We are now able to make these nanoscale fibers at bulk scale, which has never been shown before,” Acauan says.

    To demonstrate the flexibility of their technique, the team synthesized larger carbon-based structures, including a weave of carbon fibers, a mat of “fuzzy” carbon nanotubes, and sheets of randomly oriented carbon nanotubes known as “buckypaper.” They coated each carbon-based sample with boron and nitrogen precursors, then went through their process to burn away the underlying carbon. In each demonstration, they were left with a boron-nitride replica of the original black carbon scaffold.

    They also were able to “knock down” the forests of BNNTs, producing horizontally aligned fiber films that are a preferred configuration for incorporating into composite materials.

    “We are now working toward fibers to reinforce ceramic matrix composites, for hypersonic and space applications where there are very high temperatures, and for windows for devices that need to be optically transparent,” Wardle says. “You could make transparent materials that are reinforced with these very strong nanotubes.”

    This research was supported, in part, by Airbus, ANSYS, Boeing, Embraer, Lockheed Martin, Saab AB, and Teijin Carbon America through MIT’s Nano-Engineered Composite aerospace STructures (NECST) Consortium. More

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    Simplifying the production of lithium-ion batteries

    When it comes to battery innovations, much attention gets paid to potential new chemistries and materials. Often overlooked is the importance of production processes for bringing down costs.

    Now the MIT spinout 24M Technologies has simplified lithium-ion battery production with a new design that requires fewer materials and fewer steps to manufacture each cell. The company says the design, which it calls “SemiSolid” for its use of gooey electrodes, reduces production costs by up to 40 percent. The approach also improves the batteries’ energy density, safety, and recyclability.

    Judging by industry interest, 24M is onto something. Since coming out of stealth mode in 2015, 24M has licensed its technology to multinational companies including Volkswagen, Fujifilm, Lucas TVS, Axxiva, and Freyr. Those last three companies are planning to build gigafactories (factories with gigawatt-scale annual production capacity) based on 24M’s technology in India, China, Norway, and the United States.

    “The SemiSolid platform has been proven at the scale of hundreds of megawatts being produced for residential energy-storage systems. Now we want to prove it at the gigawatt scale,” says 24M CEO Naoki Ota, whose team includes 24M co-founder, chief scientist, and MIT Professor Yet-Ming Chiang.

    Establishing large-scale production lines is only the first phase of 24M’s plan. Another key draw of its battery design is that it can work with different combinations of lithium-ion chemistries. That means 24M’s partners can incorporate better-performing materials down the line without substantially changing manufacturing processes.

    The kind of quick, large-scale production of next-generation batteries that 24M hopes to enable could have a dramatic impact on battery adoption across society — from the cost and performance of electric cars to the ability of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels.

    “This is a platform technology,” Ota says. “We’re not just a low-cost and high-reliability operator. That’s what we are today, but we can also be competitive with next-generation chemistry. We can use any chemistry in the market without customers changing their supply chains. Other startups are trying to address that issue tomorrow, not today. Our tech can address the issue today and tomorrow.”

    A simplified design

    Chiang, who is MIT’s Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, got his first glimpse into large-scale battery production after co-founding another battery company, A123 Systems, in 2001. As that company was preparing to go public in the late 2000s, Chiang began wondering if he could design a battery that would be easier to manufacture.

    “I got this window into what battery manufacturing looked like, and what struck me was that even though we pulled it off, it was an incredibly complicated manufacturing process,” Chiang says. “It derived from magnetic tape manufacturing that was adapted to batteries in the late 1980s.”

    In his lab at MIT, where he’s been a professor since 1985, Chiang started from scratch with a new kind of device he called a “semi-solid flow battery” that pumps liquids carrying particle-based electrodes to and from tanks to store a charge.

    In 2010, Chiang partnered with W. Craig Carter, who is MIT’s POSCO Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and the two professors supervised a student, Mihai Duduta ’11, who explored flow batteries for his undergraduate thesis. Within a month, Duduta had developed a prototype in Chiang’s lab, and 24M was born. (Duduta was the company’s first hire.)

    But even as 24M worked with MIT’s Technology Licensing Office (TLO) to commercialize research done in Chiang’s lab, people in the company including Duduta began rethinking the flow battery concept. An internal cost analysis by Carter, who consulted for 24M for several years, ultimately lead the researchers to change directions.

    That left the company with loads of the gooey slurry that made up the electrodes in their flow batteries. A few weeks after Carter’s cost analysis, Duduta, then a senior research scientist at 24M, decided to start using the slurry to assemble batteries by hand, mixing the gooey electrodes directly into the electrolyte. The idea caught on.

    The main components of batteries are the positive and negatively charged electrodes and the electrolyte material that allows ions to flow between them. Traditional lithium-ion batteries use solid electrodes separated from the electrolyte by layers of inert plastics and metals, which hold the electrodes in place.

    Stripping away the inert materials of traditional batteries and embracing the gooey electrode mix gives 24M’s design a number of advantages.

    For one, it eliminates the energy-intensive process of drying and solidifying the electrodes in traditional lithium-ion production. The company says it also reduces the need for more than 80 percent of the inactive materials in traditional batteries, including expensive ones like copper and aluminum. The design also requires no binder and features extra thick electrodes, improving the energy density of the batteries.

    “When you start a company, the smart thing to do is to revisit all of your assumptions  and ask what is the best way to accomplish your objectives, which in our case was simply-manufactured, low-cost batteries,” Chiang says. “We decided our real value was in making a lithium-ion suspension that was electrochemically active from the beginning, with electrolyte in it, and you just use the electrolyte as the processing solvent.”

    In 2017, 24M participated in the MIT Industrial Liaison Program’s STEX25 Startup Accelerator, in which Chiang and collaborators made critical industry connections that would help it secure early partnerships. 24M has also collaborated with MIT researchers on projects funded by the Department of Energy.

    Enabling the battery revolution

    Most of 24M’s partners are eyeing the rapidly growing electric vehicle (EV) market for their batteries, and the founders believe their technology will accelerate EV adoption. (Battery costs make up 30 to 40 percent of the price of EVs, according to the Institute for Energy Research).

    “Lithium-ion batteries have made huge improvements over the years, but even Elon Musk says we need some breakthrough technology,” Ota says, referring to the CEO of EV firm Tesla. “To make EVs more common, we need a production cost breakthrough; we can’t just rely on cost reduction through scaling because we already make a lot of batteries today.”

    24M is also working to prove out new battery chemistries that its partners could quickly incorporate into their gigafactories. In January of this year, 24M received a grant from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program to develop and scale a high-energy-density battery that uses a lithium metal anode and semi-solid cathode for use in electric aviation.

    That project is one of many around the world designed to validate new lithium-ion battery chemistries that could enable a long-sought battery revolution. As 24M continues to foster the creation of large scale, global production lines, the team believes it is well-positioned to turn lab innovations into ubiquitous, world-changing products.

    “This technology is a platform, and our vision is to be like Google’s Android [operating system], where other people can build things on our platform,” Ota says. “We want to do that but with hardware. That’s why we’re licensing the technology. Our partners can use the same production lines to get the benefits of new chemistries and approaches. This platform gives everyone more options.” More

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    Ocean scientists measure sediment plume stirred up by deep-sea-mining vehicle

    What will be the impact to the ocean if humans are to mine the deep sea? It’s a question that’s gaining urgency as interest in marine minerals has grown.

    The ocean’s deep-sea bed is scattered with ancient, potato-sized rocks called “polymetallic nodules” that contain nickel and cobalt — minerals that are in high demand for the manufacturing of batteries, such as for powering electric vehicles and storing renewable energy, and in response to factors such as increasing urbanization. The deep ocean contains vast quantities of mineral-laden nodules, but the impact of mining the ocean floor is both unknown and highly contested.

    Now MIT ocean scientists have shed some light on the topic, with a new study on the cloud of sediment that a collector vehicle would stir up as it picks up nodules from the seafloor.

    The study, appearing today in Science Advances, reports the results of a 2021 research cruise to a region of the Pacific Ocean known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), where polymetallic nodules abound. There, researchers equipped a pre-prototype collector vehicle with instruments to monitor sediment plume disturbances as the vehicle maneuvered across the seafloor, 4,500 meters below the ocean’s surface. Through a sequence of carefully conceived maneuvers. the MIT scientists used the vehicle to monitor its own sediment cloud and measure its properties.

    Their measurements showed that the vehicle created a dense plume of sediment in its wake, which spread under its own weight, in a phenomenon known in fluid dynamics as a “turbidity current.” As it gradually dispersed, the plume remained relatively low, staying within 2 meters of the seafloor, as opposed to immediately lofting higher into the water column as had been postulated.

    “It’s quite a different picture of what these plumes look like, compared to some of the conjecture,” says study co-author Thomas Peacock, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “Modeling efforts of deep-sea mining plumes will have to account for these processes that we identified, in order to assess their extent.”

    The study’s co-authors include lead author Carlos Muñoz-Royo, Raphael Ouillon, and Souha El Mousadik of MIT; and Matthew Alford of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

    Deep-sea maneuvers

    To collect polymetallic nodules, some mining companies are proposing to deploy tractor-sized vehicles to the bottom of the ocean. The vehicles would vacuum up the nodules along with some sediment along their path. The nodules and sediment would then be separated inside of the vehicle, with the nodules sent up through a riser pipe to a surface vessel, while most of the sediment would be discharged immediately behind the vehicle.

    Peacock and his group have previously studied the dynamics of the sediment plume that associated surface operation vessels may pump back into the ocean. In their current study, they focused on the opposite end of the operation, to measure the sediment cloud created by the collectors themselves.

    In April 2021, the team joined an expedition led by Global Sea Mineral Resources NV (GSR), a Belgian marine engineering contractor that is exploring the CCZ for ways to extract metal-rich nodules. A European-based science team, Mining Impacts 2, also conducted separate studies in parallel. The cruise was the first in over 40 years to test a “pre-prototype” collector vehicle in the CCZ. The machine, called Patania II, stands about 3 meters high, spans 4 meters wide, and is about one-third the size of what a commercial-scale vehicle is expected to be.

    While the contractor tested the vehicle’s nodule-collecting performance, the MIT scientists monitored the sediment cloud created in the vehicle’s wake. They did so using two maneuvers that the vehicle was programmed to take: a “selfie,” and a “drive-by.”

    Both maneuvers began in the same way, with the vehicle setting out in a straight line, all its suction systems turned on. The researchers let the vehicle drive along for 100 meters, collecting any nodules in its path. Then, in the “selfie” maneuver, they directed the vehicle to turn off its suction systems and double back around to drive through the cloud of sediment it had just created. The vehicle’s installed sensors measured the concentration of sediment during this “selfie” maneuver, allowing the scientists to monitor the cloud within minutes of the vehicle stirring it up.

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    A movie of the Patania II pre-prototype collector vehicle entering, driving through, and leaving the low-lying turbidity current plume as part of a selfie operation. For scale, the instrumentation post attached to the front of the vehicle reaches about 3m above the seabed. The movie is sped up by a factor of 20. Credit: Global Sea Mineral Resources

    For the “drive-by” maneuver, the researchers placed a sensor-laden mooring 50 to 100 meters from the vehicle’s planned tracks. As the vehicle drove along collecting nodules, it created a plume that eventually spread past the mooring after an hour or two. This “drive-by” maneuver enabled the team to monitor the sediment cloud over a longer timescale of several hours, capturing the plume evolution.

    Out of steam

    Over multiple vehicle runs, Peacock and his team were able to measure and track the evolution of the sediment plume created by the deep-sea-mining vehicle.

    “We saw that the vehicle would be driving in clear water, seeing the nodules on the seabed,” Peacock says. “And then suddenly there’s this very sharp sediment cloud coming through when the vehicle enters the plume.”

    From the selfie views, the team observed a behavior that was predicted by some of their previous modeling studies: The vehicle stirred up a heavy amount of sediment that was dense enough that, even after some mixing with the surrounding water, it generated a plume that behaved almost as a separate fluid, spreading under its own weight in what’s known as a turbidity current.

    “The turbidity current spreads under its own weight for some time, tens of minutes, but as it does so, it’s depositing sediment on the seabed and eventually running out of steam,” Peacock says. “After that, the ocean currents get stronger than the natural spreading, and the sediment transitions to being carried by the ocean currents.”

    By the time the sediment drifted past the mooring, the researchers estimate that 92 to 98 percent of the sediment either settled back down or remained within 2 meters of the seafloor as a low-lying cloud. There is, however, no guarantee that the sediment always stays there rather than drifting further up in the water column. Recent and future studies by the research team are looking into this question, with the goal of consolidating understanding for deep-sea mining sediment plumes.

    “Our study clarifies the reality of what the initial sediment disturbance looks like when you have a certain type of nodule mining operation,” Peacock says. “The big takeaway is that there are complex processes like turbidity currents that take place when you do this kind of collection. So, any effort to model a deep-sea-mining operation’s impact will have to capture these processes.”

    “Sediment plumes produced by deep-seabed mining are a major concern with regards to environmental impact, as they will spread over potentially large areas beyond the actual site of mining and affect deep-sea life,” says Henko de Stigter, a marine geologist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, who was not involved in the research. “The current paper provides essential insight in the initial development of these plumes.”

    This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation, ARPA-E, the 11th Hour Project, the Benioff Ocean Initiative, and Global Sea Mineral Resources. The funders had no role in any aspects of the research analysis, the research team states. More

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    A lasting — and valuable — legacy

    Betar Gallant, MIT associate professor and Class of 1922 Career Development Chair in Mechanical Engineering, grew up in a curious, independently minded family. Her mother had multiple jobs over the years, including in urban planning and in the geospatial field. Her father, although formally trained in English, read textbooks of all kinds from cover to cover, taught himself numerous technical fields including engineering, and worked successfully in them. When Gallant was very young, she and her father did science experiments in the basement.

    It wasn’t until she was in her teenage years, though, that she says she got drawn into science. Her father, who had fallen ill five years before, died when Gallant was 16, and while grieving, “when I was missing him the most,” she started to look at what had captivated her father.

    “I started to take a deeper interest in the things he had spent his life working on as a way to feel closer to him in his absence,” Gallant says. “I spent a few long months one summer looking through some of the things he had worked on, and found myself reading physics textbooks. That was enough, and I was hooked.”

    The love for independently finding and understanding solutions, that she had apparently inherited from her parents, eventually took her to the professional love of her life: electrochemistry.

    As an undergraduate at MIT, Gallant did an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program project with Professor Yang Shao-Horn’s research group that went from her sophomore year through her senior thesis. This was Gallant’s first official exposure to electrochemistry.

    “When I met Yang, she showed me very quickly how challenging and enriching electrochemistry can be, and there was real conviction and excitement in how she and her group members talked about research,” Gallant says. “It was totally eye-opening, and I’m fortunate that she was a (relatively rare) electrochemist in a mechanical engineering department, or else I likely would not have been able to go down that road.”

    Play video

    Gallant earned three degrees at MIT (’08, SM ’10, and PhD ’13). Before joining the MIT faculty in 2016, she was a Kavli Nanoscience Institute Prize Postdoctoral Fellow at Caltech in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.

    Her passion for electrochemistry is enormous. “Electrons are just dazzling — they power so much of our everyday world, and are the key to a renewable future,” she says, explaining that despite electrons’ amazing potential, isolated electrons cannot be stored and produced on demand, because “nature doesn’t allow excessive amounts of charge imbalances to accumulate.”

    Electrons can, however, be stored on molecules, in bonds and in metal ions or nonmetal centers that are able to lose and gain electrons — as long as positive charge transfers occur to accommodate the electrons.

    “Here’s where chemistry rears its head,” Gallant says. “What types of molecules or materials can behave in this way? How do we store as much charge as possible while making the weight and volume as low as possible?”

    Gallant points out that early battery developers using lithium and ions built a technology that “has arguably shaped our modern world more than any other.

    “If you look at some early papers, the concepts of how a lithium-ion battery or a lithium metal anode worked were sketched out by hand — they had been deduced to be true, before the field even had the tools to prove all the mechanisms were actually occurring — yet even now, those ideas are still turning out to be right!”

    Gallant says, “that’s because if you truly understand the basic principles of electrochemistry, you can start to intuit how systems will behave. Once you can do that, you can really begin to engineer better materials and devices.”

    Truly her father’s daughter, Gallant’s emphasis is on independently finding solutions.

    “Ultimately, it’s a race to have the best mental models,” she says. “A great lab and lots of funding and personnel to run it are very nice, but the most valuable tools in the toolbox are solid mental models and a way of thinking about electrochemistry, which is actually very personalized depending on the researcher.”

    She says one project with immediate impact that’s coming out of her Gallant Energy and Carbon Conversion Lab relates to primary (non-rechargeable) battery work that she and her team are working to commercialize. It involves injecting new electrochemically active electrolytes into leading high-energy batteries as they’re being assembled. Replacing a conventional electrolyte with the new chemistry decreases the normally inactive weight of the battery and boosts the energy substantially, Gallant says. One important application of such batteries would be for medical devices such as pacemakers.

    “If you can extend lifetime, you’re talking about longer times between invasive replacement surgeries, which really affects patient quality of life,” she says.

    Gallant’s team is also leading efforts to enable higher-energy rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. Key to a step-change in energy, and therefore driving range, is to use a lithium metal anode in place of graphite. Lithium metal is highly reactive, however, with all battery electrolytes, and its interface needs to be stabilized in ways that still elude researchers. Gallant’s team is developing design guidelines for such interfaces, and for next-generation electrolytes to form and sustain these interfaces. Gallant says that applying the technology to that purpose and commercializing it would be “a bit longer-term, but I believe this change to lithium anodes will happen, and it’s just a matter of when.”

    About six years ago, when Gallant founded her lab, she and her team started introducing carbon dioxide into batteries as a way to experiment with electrochemical conversion of the greenhouse gas. She says they realized that batteries do not present the best practical technology to mitigate CO2, but their experimentation did open up new paths to carbon capture and conversion. “That work allowed us to think creatively, and we started to realize that there is tremendous potential to manipulate CO2 reactions by carefully designing the electrochemical environment.” That led her team to the idea of conducting electrochemical transformations on CO2 from a captured state bound to a capture sorbent, replacing the energy-intense regeneration step of today’s capture processes and streamlining the process.  

    “Now we’re seeing other researchers working on that, too, and taking this idea in exciting directions — it’s a very challenging and very rich topic,” she says.

    Gallant has won awards including an MIT Bose Fellowship, the Army Research Office Young Investigator Award, the Scialog Fellowship in Energy Storage and in Negative Emissions Science, a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, the Ruth and Joel Spira Award for Distinguished Teaching at MIT, the Electrochemical Society (ECS) Battery Division Early Career award, and an ECS-Toyota Young Investigator Award.

    These days, Gallant does some of her best thinking while brainstorming with her research group members and with her husband, who is also an academic. She says being a professor at MIT means she has “a queue of things to think about,” but she sometimes gets awarded with a revelation.

    “My brain gets overloaded because I can’t think through everything instantaneously; ideas have to get in line! So there’s a lot going on in the background at all times,” she say. “I don’t know how it works, but sometimes I’ll be going for a walk or doing something else, and an idea breaks through. Those are the fun ones.” More