Renewable Energy

At BEST, Batteries Are Not Just a Black Box

For decades, batteries have been just another commodity. One dies and we drop a new one in, whether it’s to power a cell phone or start an automobile.

Even research scientists treat batteries as a kind of black box, says Chao-Yang Wang, Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Penn State. “They look at the ratings and plug them in, but they never open them up. They don’t know whether an application is limited by the battery’s anode, cathode, or something else.”

All that may be about to change.

Batteries—especially rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries—are undergoing a renaissance. They drive nearly all portable electric devices, and are critical in hybrid electric and all-electric vehicles. They promise to store solar and wind power for use when the sky is cloudy or the air is still. They could power an economy that is greener, more sustainable, and less dependent on imported oil.

These promising techologies rely on large Li-ion batteries, which differ radically from their smaller cousins. They may involve new chemistries, new structures, and complicated control systems. Penn State’s new, 10,000-square-foot Battery and Energy Storage Technology (BEST) Center has become a focal point for development of vehicle and grid-sized Li-ion batteries.

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