Humankind’s reliance on fossil fuels over the past two centuries has enabled unprecedented population growth and urbanization, with concomitant advances in technology and quality of life. Yet the extreme costs to the health of our planet through depletion and use of these resources — no longer a distant possibility but a present reality — have generated significant research investment into alternative energy solutions. At the heart of these alternative energy solutions is the notion of sustainability, and ideally, the use of renewable energy that produces little to no emissions.
In particular, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are playing a continuing key role in today’s emerging sustainable energy landscape. They are not only used to power consumer electronics and zero-emission electric vehicles, but are also currently gaining traction in aircraft and smart-grid applications. However, safety concerns regarding these systems continue to persist because the electrolyte component currently used in commercial batteries contains a flammable mixture of organic solvents. These materials pose a high risk of spontaneous ignition under most operating conditions, which necessitates the development of radically new electrolytes with improved safety.
The DeSimone laboratory is developing next-generation polymeric electrolytes for lithium-ion batteries that demonstrate high thermal and electrochemical stability and ionic conductivity (Wong et al., Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., 2014, 111(9), 3327-3331). Specifically, the team’s strategy is to accomplish this through the creative design of novel polymers and conductive elastomers based on perfluoropolyethers (PFPEs). Due to the inherent nonflammability, chemical resistivity, and oxidative stability of PFPEs, we have had early success in engineering both liquid and solid-state electrolytes for lithium-ion and lithium-air batteries with properties that make them immediately relevant to zero-emission vehicles and smart-grid energy storage systems. Further research will continue to improve the energy density and cycling efficiencies of these batteries, enabling more prominent use of lithium-ion batteries in applications that traditionally employ fossil fuels. Environmental and safety impact serves as a primary touchstone in our work.