Area of Study / Position Title: Inorganic/Materials Chemistry, Professor
Why chemistry? (What about it initially interested you?): It was some courses I took in my first year at college. Freshman majors didn’t take general chemistry, instead I had one term each of biochemistry and crystallography. I was fascinated and a bit mystified, and they got me hooked into chemistry.
Research focus (in non-science terms) or basic job duties? I’m looking into new intercalation chemistry reactions, and also at the preparation of new nanocomposites materials. These are interesting lately because they are the electrodes used in lithium-ion and related batteries.
One thing you truly love about your job? One thing I love is discussing results from ongoing research projects. Getting results from new experiments means finding out unknown things about nature, and it really feels like being an explorer.
One interesting/strange factoid about yourself. I worked for Stanley Kaplan (the man himself) for several years during college.
Have you looked around and noticed that more and more items are powered by lithium ion batteries? All cell phones and laptops use lithium ion batteries, and automobiles and even ships are moving toward this technology. Advances in technology are making these batteries (and the products they power) smaller, lighter, and longer-lasting—but what happens to the batteries once they have outlived their usefulness?
The current technology for handling used batteries follows 2 tracks: batteries are either ground up in order to extract the expensive components (nickel, cobalt), or…they go to the landfill. Good earth stewardship demands a better, lower-energy alternative. Dr. Steve Sloop (OSU, 1996), founder of OnTo Technology, is in the forefront of this field, helping to change the battery waste flow into a battery resource flow.
Working closely with researchers and students at Willamette University and OSU, OnTo Technology is developing direct recycling processes that entail disassembling used batteries into their reusable components, ensuring component quality, and then introducing these components back into the battery manufacturing process. The associated recovery technologies, which must continually evolve as lithium-ion battery technology evolves, use much less energy and create much less waste than current recycling methods. Although their new procedures are somewhat more labor-intensive, Steve calculates they use 1/62 as much energy (based on the Hess cycle calculation for smelting, boiling, and purifying the valuable components). If the energy used to originally extract these materials from the earth is included, the savings are even greater.
OnTo Technology came into being as a company in 2004, starting with a loan from the Oregon Department of Energy. This loan allowed Steve to hire a staff and to purchase equipment for pilot-plant scale research. A battery recall by Apple provided the raw materials required for initial testing. Interestingly, one of the first revenue streams for this fledgling company was reselling perfectly functional batteries (obtained in the recall but not on the recall list) on eBay. Since that time, OnTo Technology has largely moved away from the small consumer electronics batteries to work with automobile and ship batteries; a grant from the US Department of Energy, Vehicles Division supports this newer focus.
When asked about the business model for his company, Steve explains that OnTo Technologies is not planning to become a battery manufacturer. Instead, their goal is to license battery recycling technology to a manufacturing partner; currently they are working with XALT, a major US based manufacturer of large format batteries for cars and boats, and other manufacturers as well. The scientists at OnTo are working to keep up with rapidly evolving battery technologies, in order to keep their partners in the forefront. Their main product is knowledge and expertise in this exciting field.
In addition, OnTo works with OSU Chemistry’s Dr. Mike Lerner and his group to characterize material structures and compositions at different points in the recycling process. This information helps guide OnTo’s process development. Collaborating for several years now on battery chemistry, Dr. Lerner and Dr. Sloop met 20 years ago when Steve was a doctoral student working with Mike.
Battery companies are not only interested in Steve’s ideas in order to save money on minerals. There is momentum in local and state governments to require battery recycling, in order to reduce the toxic load in landfills; California already has such laws. In addition, the marketing value of being considered a “green” manufacturer cannot be overstated. Steve believes recycling is inevitable; he is leading the way in developing the best way to do it.
Many challenges remain; some manufacturers still think it is crazy to consider processes that are so labor intensive when it is easier/cheaper to grind and smelt, or discard, old batteries. In the future, an automated disassembly line may reduce the required labor. Right now, the scientists at OnTo Technologies continue to work on these challenges.
I attended the 31st International Battery Seminars in March. One the one hand, I presented a short review of current academic research on graphene in energy storage applications. My conclusions were that “gen-2” graphenes, with tailored functional edges and basal surfaces, present a possible route towards dense, electrically and thermally conductive composite hierarchical structures for battery or supercapacitor electrodes. And also that this is no secret, there is a lot of research activity ongoing all over the globe.
On the other hand, I manned an OSU exhibitor booth extolling the virtues of our soon-to-be-offered online course called “Chemistry and Materials of Batteries and Supercapacitors”. There was an encouraging level of interest from large and small companies, governmental agencies, and other academics. I hope we’ll get a mix of students from these sources; among other advantages it will make for interesting class discussions.
Finally, the conference itself was fantastic. One could feel, almost palpably, the pull from industry for better batteries to meet the demands of the electric vehicle and smart grid markets. At the same time, we heard from many contributors that the existing technology and its logical extensions will not likely get us there — that major and fundamental advances in materials and chemistry are needed. What does this all mean? For one thing, it’s a very good time to be a battery chemist!