Yuan Yang | On the Verge of a Battery-Powered Revolution

A major focus of the battery community—and Yang's research—is developing high-capacity electrodes.

Apr 05 2016 | By Amy Biemiller

High-performance energy storage devices will be key to a sustainable future, allowing cell phones to go longer between recharging, increasing mileage for electric vehicles, and stabilizing the power output of solar and wind energy.

Yuan Yang
Yuan Yang - Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering —Photo by Timothy Lee Photographers

“Advanced batteries will be a game changer for addressing global challenges of energy sustainability and environmental stewardship,” says Yuan Yang, assistant professor of materials science and engineering. “Now is a really exciting time to work in batteries and energy storage.”

The world already knows the value of the lithium ion battery, the most common energy source for consumer electronics. It’s lightweight and rechargeable. But at the same time, its cycling life and energy density are still not satisfactory for various applications, including electric vehicles. It also comes with safety concerns regarding overheating, which is a problem because lithium ion batteries contain a flammable electrolyte. One promising way to overcome these disadvantages is to develop higher-capacity materials inside the battery that can safely store more energy and then deliver a higher amount of electricity.

“Now a big focus of the battery community is developing high-capacity electrodes, such as metallic lithium negative electrodes,” says Yang. “That’s one major focus of my research.”

Each lithium ion battery has a positive electrode and a negative electrode. The electrodes are surrounded by an organic electrolyte that contains a solution of lithium salt. Although metallic lithium negative electrode has high capacity, it tends to form thin conductive filaments, called dendrites, during the battery charging.

These dendrites reduce the life of the batteries and can cause them to catch fire. In addition, lithium is so reactive that it can consume electrolytes through side reactions.

To solve these challenges, Yang plans to observe the nanoscale processes that happen during lithium dendrite formation and develop solid electrolyte to suppress the growth of dendrites. He expects his research to advance the body of knowledge about the electrochemical reactions that happen inside the battery and to help industry design rechargeable batteries that operate at higher volumes. It could also help further understanding about how nanoscale materials interact.

“We will use some novel tools to look inside the battery—something like X-ray imaging but at a much higher resolution, such as several nanometers, which is less than 1/10,000 of a human hair,” explains Yang.

Collaboration will drive further advances in Yang’s research and be essential to enhancing energy sustainability.

“Nowadays it is hard for a single scientist to grasp all techniques necessary for investigative research, and it is also difficult for one scientist to interpret all the data,” he explains. “Collaboration is essential. It brings the expertise of different people together to tackle grand challenges of big problems, like energy sustainability.”

Yang joined Columbia Engineering in 2015. Prior to Columbia, he was a postdoctoral associate at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

BS, Peking University, China (2007); PhD, Stanford University (2012)

From the forthcoming Columbia Engineering magazine, Spring 2016