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On the Frontier of Energy

—Claire McCarthy

The University of Texas at Austin De- partment of Chemistry and Biochem- istry scientists are part of a $777 mil- lion stimulus effort to accelerate the nation’s breakthroughs in clean and efficient energy production. UT Austin is home to two of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRC, that support research funding totaling $43 million. UT Austin has the distinction of being the only site in Texas to receive EFRC honors.

The EFRC based in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry is lead by Professor Paul Barbara and includes the participation of Department fac- ulty members Allen Bard, Christopher Bielawski, Graeme Henkelman, Brad Holliday, Peter Rossky, Keith Steven- son, David Vanden Bout, Lauren Webb, Katherine Willets and Xiaoyang Zhu. This particular EFRC has been funded with a $15 million grant, that will not only provide state-of-the-art equipment, but also fund several postdoctoral associ- ates and dozens of graduate students in chemistry and biochemistry over the next five years, the grant’s duration.

The two major focuses of the EFRC are researching the use of organic polymers in solar cells and the optimization of lithium ion batteries. Organic polymer- based solar cells, or organic photovol- taics (OPV), use organic electronic ma- terials instead of the traditional silicon.

OPVs can ideally be created on a larger scale for a lower cost, absorb a large amount of light with a small amount of material, and even be structurally flex- ible; scientists imagine “papering” a rooftop with sheets of OPV material to provide energy to the building beneath it. While OPV technology represents an extremely promising new direction in harnessing the tremendous energy potential of the sun, the technology still needs refinement and progress before it can be applied to the commercial market, and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry scientists are work- ing diligently towards that goal.

The second EFRC research thrust fo- cuses on optimization of lithium ion batteries, much like the kind in your laptop or cell phone. Lithium ion bat- tery technology is definitely a step up from the traditional alkaline battery. Lithium ion batteries are more efficient and better yet, they can be recharged hundreds of times. However, for future applications, such as storage of solar electricity or power for electric cars, current lithium ion batteries are not up to the task. Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry scientists are work- ing towards technology for even more efficient and refined lithium ion cells. Today, these batteries are problematic in that they’re too heavy, too expensive, and pose a fire hazard. For example, thrust leader Professor Keith Steven-

son explains, in the current technol- ogy for all-electric cars, the battery is essentially several lithium cells bound together, weighing hundreds of pounds and occupying a five-foot -long container. Not only does this weigh down the vehicle consider- ably, it poses a fire risk. The cobalt used in these cells is highly reactive, and valued for its high voltage and energy potential. But the flip side of such reactivity is its increased fire danger. If one of the lithium ion cells in a vehicle’s pack were to ignite, the consequences could be disastrous. As such, considerable research is needed to develop better and safer lithium ion cells so that they can be used to their full potential in a wide array of products and situations. In- deed, the goal of creating a battery that can safely and efficiently power something as energy-demanding as a car is a very worthy one, prompting Department of Chemistry and Bio- chemistry researchers to continue developing better technologies and ideas.

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