Grant funds UWM, industry research for greener lithium ion batteries

Lithium ion batteries that are expected to power electric vehicles in future years will incorporate nanomaterials that could produce waste disposal challenges for the auto industry.

A University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee engineer has received $400,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation for what the university says is the first study to examine the environmental impacts of next-generation lithium ion battery technology.

The next-generation batteries being researched would carry a higher energy density, allowing drivers of electric vehicles to travel greater distances between charges. But the use of nanomaterials creates environmental challenges that need to be assessed.

“We want to develop an environmentally benign lithium ion battery for future electric vehicles,” said Chris Yingchun Yuan, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “It’s a very exciting project.”

Yuan is collaborating with Glendale-based Johnson Controls Inc. as well as General Motors Co. and PE International on the research. “We assume the technology will eventually move into the commercial arena, and we want to be prepared for these questions while the research is still going on,” he said.

Johnson Controls supplies electric vehicle batteries from its factory in Michigan, and researches next-generation batteries at its Glendale research laboratory. The company has also partnered with UWM to open labs on campus, where company and faculty engineers collaborate.

The project is part of a wave of industry research focused on finding new technologies that can extend the driving range of an electric vehicle and reduce emissions linked to climate change. The research seeks to develop batteries that cost less, since battery prices are a key contributor to the higher price tag for hybrids and EVs.

The Early Career grant from the NSF will fund five years of work to develop mathematical models and computational tools to help create greener next-generation batteries, UWM said.

The nanomaterials will be produced in Yuan’s lab at UW-Milwaukee, and then those materials will be incorporated into a battery at the on-campus Johnson Controls labs based at the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The tiny nanomaterials carry potential health risks for occupational and public health.

“Making these batteries requires the use of more chemicals than the current technology, in addition to creation of the nanomaterials themselves,” said Yuan.

Working with GM, Johnson Controls and the sustainability consulting firm PE International, Yuan’s study seeks to develop a sustainability assessment for us in large-scale battery production. The research will:

  • Model the manufacturing process step by step to calculate emissions and identify steps during production where waste and emissions can be reduced.
  • Study the life-cycle energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from the batteries, “from cradle to grave,” to find ways to reduce cost and carbon dioxide emissions, Yuan said.
  • Research how the batteries can be disposed of or recycled after 10 years, their projected lifespan. Yuan will explore techniques for removing nanomaterials from the finished batteries without releasing them into the environment.