SPUR 2021: Engineering Low-Cost Sodium-Ion Battery Materials from Utah Coal


The development of low-cost energy storage technologies is of critical importance for large-scale implementation of renewable energy, including wind and solar power. Batteries are a promising technology for grid-scale energy storage because of their high energy density and ability to be implemented in any location (unlike “site-specific” energy storage options such as pumped hydro). The current price of lithium-ion batteries is approximately $400/kWh, far exceeding the price target of $2-$80/kWh for grid-scale energy storage set by the US Department of Energy. Sodium-ion batteries are a promising, lower-cost alternative to lithium-ion batteries, however widespread implementation of sodium-ion batteries is currently limited by a lack of low cost, high energy density anode materials. The goal of this research is to explore the use of an ultra-low-cost carbon source–coal char–as a novel material for sodium-ion battery anodes. Utah has abundant coal resources that have traditionally been burned for power generation. As alternative energy resources (e.g. natural gas, solar, and wind) replace coal power generation, considerable research efforts are focused on finding alternative uses for Utah coal. Battery anodes made from coal char represent an exceptional high-value opportunity for Utah coal, with coal raw material costing approximately $0.01-$0.03/kg, and commercial carbon battery anodes valued at approximately $12.50/kg. In this research project, we are testing the effects of various post-processing methods on the sodium-ion battery performance of Utah coal char, with the goal of maximizing energy density for coal-derived anodes.

Student Role

The undergraduate student researcher will participate in all aspects of the project, including: reviewing relevant scientific research papers; conducting post-processing of coal powders (e.g. washing, heating, grinding); materials characterization using electron microscopy and X-ray spectroscopy techniques; assembling battery coin cells in a glove box; testing the assembled coin cells; data analysis; writing reports; and presenting results at research group meetings. A typical day will involve time spent in the lab conducting experiments (~5-6 hours), time spent documenting and analyzing results for the day (~1-2 hours), and regular meetings with Prof. Warren and the project graduate students. The undergraduate researcher will also be invited to participate in all general research and social activities of the lab group.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

Through their work on this summer research project, the undergraduate student is expected to learn how to:

  1. Articulate a research question and hypothesis;
  2. Design an experimental plan to answer the research question that can be completed in approximately 2 months;
  3. Conduct laboratory experiments in the field of battery research;
  4. Analyze and present research results;
  5. Critically read and interpret scientific literature, including placing their current research question within the context of existing knowledge;
  6. Write a research paper summarizing their findings.

Following their summer research experience, it is expected that the student will be well-prepared to apply for graduate studies in engineering or science.

Remote Contingency Plan

The proposed research project requires the student to conduct on-campus lab work. In the event that this is not possible, an alternative project is available that involves battery simulation. This work can be conducted entirely remotely.

Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) have become the standard for electrochemical energy storage in consumer electronics and electric vehicles because of their high energy and long cycle life. Although energy storage capacity, cycle life, and cost are of primary importance for LIBs, there is growing interest and concern regarding the overall life cycle environmental impacts of LIBs. This topic has become increasingly important due to the rapid growth of the worldwide LIB market and the accompanying surge in LIB materials extraction, production, and disposal. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a powerful methodology that seeks to quantify the environmental impacts of a product’s materials, manufacturing, use, and disposal across a range of impact categories. In this research project, we are exploring the use of first-principles electrochemical modeling integrated with battery life cycle assessment to determine optimum cell designs that minimize LIB life cycle environmental impacts.

For this SPUR experience, the undergraduate research student will work with a graduate student in PI Warren’s lab to conduct battery life cycle assessment modeling and design. The learning outcomes for this contingency project are the same as those for the main project, with the exception of learning objective #3 (“Conduct laboratory experiments in the field of battery research” will be replaced with “Set-up and run electrochemical and life cycle assessment models of batteries”).

Roseanne Warren
Assistant Professor

Mechanical Engineering
College of Engineering

PI Warren’s first research experience was as an undergraduate student, and she strongly believes in the formative nature of this opportunity. In Spring 2017, PI Warren completed a six-week “Undergraduate Research Mentor Development Program” training course sponsored by the University of Utah Office of Undergraduate Research. PI Warren has mentored 10 undergraduate students during her four years as a tenure-track faculty member, adopting a one-on-one mentoring approach with each of these students. Four of PI Warren’s undergraduate researchers have received UROP fellowships, and an additional two have received NSF REU funding. Additionally, two undergraduate student researchers from PI Warren’s group have published a journal article as first and second authors (Michael Bekeris and Takara Truong; Phys. Status Solidi RRL 2020, 2000328).

The SPUR research student will receive mentoring from both PI Warren and the project graduate students (Zahra Karimi and Jaron Moon). The student will receive training in all lab processes, as well as best practices for reading scientific literature, analyzing data, and presenting research results. The student will have opportunities to accompany Karimi and Moon to the Surface Analysis Lab at the University of Utah Nanofab for advanced materials characterization. The student will meet with PI Warren, Karimi, and Moon on a daily or weekly basis throughout the project, depending on project stage and training the student has received on the project to-date. At the end of the project, the student will have the opportunity to present their results as a research lab presentation, conference presentation and/or journal publication, dependening on the success of the experiments.