A safer lithium-ion battery for electric vehicles, developed by a University of Rochester engineer and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has received a 2017 R&D 100 Award.

Photo credit: University of Rochester

The awards, also known as the Oscars of Invention, are sponsored by R&D Magazine. They have been awarded since 1963 to honor innovative breakthroughs in materials science, biomedicine, and consumer products by academia, industry, and government-sponsored research agencies.

The Safe Impact Resistant Electrolyte, developed by a team at Oak Ridge led by Gabriel Veith and by the laboratory of Wyatt Tenhaeff, assistant professor of chemical engineering at UR, improves the safety of plug-in electric vehicle batteries.

In typical automotive lithium-ion batteries, the liquid electrolyte, which conducts the electrical current, poses a fire risk in high-speed collisions and requires heavy protective shielding, decreasing the vehicle’s range and efficiency. SAFIRE eliminates this risk by using an additive that transforms the liquid electrolyte to a solid upon impact, blocking contact between electrodes.

It performs as well as conventional electrolytes under normal conditions and can significantly reduce electric vehicle weight and increase travel distance—helping to overcome some of the biggest hurdles in the way of wider use of electric vehicles. The project has received the first of multiple expected patents, UR said.

Tenhaeff credits the work of one of his PhD students, Brian Shen, in helping to develop the material. Shen spent a total of 11 months at Oak Ridge synthesizing and coating the material and adding them to electrolytes to prepare shear thickening electrolytes. He also tested the shear thickening electrolytes to ensure they would respond in a crash and function properly with the rest of the battery.

The project was supported with seed money from Oak Ridge and from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Tenhaeff, who worked as a staff scientist at Oak Ridge prior to joining the UR faculty, is also collaborating on two other battery projects funded by ARPA-E.