Science lab spotlight

The next generation of materials

The Electrochemical Materials Lab aims to develop the multifunctional materials of the future

Scientists and industry leaders alike have hypothesized that we are reaching the limits of our ability to design faster computational systems using traditional hardware like transistors. While quantum computing is a tantalizing solution to this problem, the technology is not yet ready for the hands and pockets of the average consumer. Jennifer Rupp, Professor of Materials Science, Electrical Engineering, and Computer Science and Principal Investigator of the Electrochemical Materials Lab, is working to develop new materials that bridge this technology gap for the average person. The Electrochemical Materials Lab focuses on finding new ways to process ceramic and glass, leveraging new methods and design paradigms towards new device functionalities that have the potential to make our devices smaller, faster, and smarter than ever before.

When Rupp was 17, she found herself extremely interested in how atoms and chemistry create crystal structures. Classically trained in mineralogy and crystallography, she was “always very amazed” by the “high variety of properties defined by crystal structures,” and gravitated towards materials. “It was a natural given to go into ceramic processing and properties of materials, and thinking about what that can define for the next era of devices,” she recalled. As Rupp focused increasingly on ceramics and device engineering, she began looking for ways to develop more efficient batteries and the next generation of computational devices. To this end, she joined MIT and established the Electrochemical Materials Lab.

What makes the batteries developed in the Electrochemical Materials Lab different from the ones in our phones and laptops? According to Rupp, it’s the flammability of the material. “If you opened your battery, it would flame, or cause irreparable damage. But if you have the lithium encapsulated in a ceramic structure, even if you open the battery casing, it will not enflame.” In other words, ceramic structures would make batteries much safer for the average consumer. Rupp also notes that ceramic’s durability would allow batteries to run at higher voltages that would corrode conventional laptop and phone batteries. “Using these higher voltages would allow devices to be charged faster and potentially store more energy, extending the lifespan of consumer electronics.”

In addition to increasing the voltage at which batteries can run, Rupp is also interested in expanding the functionality of batteries towards sensing technology. “Currently, in your phone, you have your battery that supplies the energy, a couple of sensors that track your motion, temperature, and a couple other things, and a couple of processors computing the data,” Rupp explained. “What I’m also working on is having one base material for the hardware with different electrochemistries for energy storage, environmental monitoring, and data computation.” In this way, Rupp hopes to optimize the amount of materials used in phones and laptops while also increasing function.

The lab has already made strides towards developing batteries with environmental sensors. They recently published a paper in Advanced Materials showing the use of a solid state battery, which is a fast conductor, to track the carbon dioxide levels in a room in real-time at very low temperatures. This sensor-battery hybrid can be used to determine the number of people in a given area, potentially feeding into a climate control system that would result in efficient energy usage and real-time temperature control in any space. While the battery only senses carbon dioxide at the moment, the lab is has begun research on expanding this technology towards sensing other relevant chemicals.

Though progress has been made, the work of the Electrochemical Materials Lab is not without challenges, especially when looking to preserve a material’s properties after processing it to create a product. According to Rupp , “Process defines properties.” The lab often discovers or knows of exciting properties of materials that have the potential to be used for novel devices, but scaling the processing and manufacturing of that material in a way that maintains those properties can be a challenge. Rupp welcomes this challenge. She believes that scientists, in addition to doing basic research, should make an effort to understand how their work can be made accessible to society. “When I started at MIT, I think I was doing more conceptual and fundamental work, and I think MIT gave me the wings to be courageous, to think about how we can translate our work back to the public.” In pursuit of this, Rupp and her students make ethically conscious decisions about the research partnerships that they choose to enter, being sure to foster collaborations that will make their work accessible to the greater public.

In addition to bringing her own research to the public, Rupp is interested in showing other academics that they do not need to work solely within their own field. She wants to foster interdisciplinary research on electrochemical materials development to increase the potential uses for a given device. Rupp also wants to make mass energy storage cheap and accessible, so that a broader mass of people can access resources such as electric cars. In Rupp’s eyes, the future of electrochemical materials is “challenging, exciting, and good.” By working to make accessible, efficient technology, the Electrochemical Materials Lab hopes to brighten the future of energy for the average person.

Correction 12/10/18: The journal in which the paper was published was previously listed as Nature Materials, but has been updated to Advanced Materials, the correct publication.