Little Batteries, Big Potential
April 26, 2021
School of Engineering
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
Postdoctoral Fellowship, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Postdoctoral Fellowship, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
PhD, Materials Science, University of Western Ontario
Master of Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, University of Science and Technology Beijing
Bachelor of Engineering, Metallic Materials Engineering, Sichuan University
“Batteries are everywhere in our lives — from our electronics to electric vehicles — but oddly not many people understand how they work.”
INSIDE THE ADVANCED MATERIALS FOR ENERGY STORAGE (AMES) LAB at UBC’s Okanagan campus, Dr. Jian Liu oversees a research group working towards developing the next generation of batteries.
“Batteries are everywhere in our lives — from our electronics to electric vehicles — but oddly not many people understand how they work,” explains Dr. Liu, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the School of Engineering and a Principal’s Research Chair (PRC) in Energy Storage Technology.
In his role as PRC, Dr. Liu is collaborating with some of the leading global manufacturers in the battery sector to design solutions that will play an essential role in the adoption of renewable energy, deployment of electric vehicles, decarbonization of the North American economy and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
In order for a battery to work, it needs to store chemical energy and convert it into electrical energy. The process involves an electrochemical reaction that transfers electrons from one electrode to the other through an external circuit, while ions move inside the battery.
Rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are the most popular batteries on the market; around since the late 20th century and first commercially available in 1991, Li-ion batteries have a high energy density, meaning they can hold a substantial level of charge despite high power demands from electronic devices.
Dr. Liu and his team are focusing their research on three core areas: atomic/molecular layer deposition, surface/interface in energy systems, and electrode and electrolyte materials beyond Li-ion batteries.
“In order to innovate energy storage solutions, we need to investigate how different substances interact with one another,” Dr. Liu explains. “The ultimate goal is to create smaller and more powerful batteries.” Dr. Liu believes these innovations will accelerate the deployment of renewable energy technologies in different sectors and contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
At the AMES Lab, Dr. Liu and his team are assembling Li-ion and sodium-ion (Na-ion) batteries for further testing. They’re looking for alternatives to lithium, which has been a go-to option but is a diminishing resource with rising costs. As a result, the researchers are turning their attention to other minerals such as zinc and sodium to serve as alternatives to lithium.
Those results are also leading Dr. Liu to investigate 3D solid-state microbatteries that offer onboard energy storage for wearable devices, medical implants and flexible devices because they provide high energy and power density in a limited space.
Quantum physics is empowering many of the latest innovations in batteries, and Dr. Liu continues to push the envelope. “There doesn’t seem to be a ceiling in terms of where we can take batteries in the future.”