Today in a mineral supplement, tomorrow under the hood of your car.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a grant to Dr. Jennifer Hampton of the Hope College physics faculty for research that she hopes will help lead to new materials becoming viable options for use in batteries—including some that are perhaps most familiar for showing up on nutrition labels.
The three-year, $169,279 grant is supporting Hampton and her team of undergraduate student researchers as they focus on thin films that they will create using a family of porous compounds known as hexacyanoferrate (HCF) and then test for their ability to store and deliver energy. It’s research that could one day lead to batteries that are rich in calcium or potassium, although in a different form than found in one’s diet.
“By increasing our knowledge of charge transport in HCF films, the research will open up a broader range of materials available for use in advanced battery technologies,” said Hampton, an associate professor of physics who has taught at Hope since 2007.
The work will be done at a micro- and nano-scopic level, too small to see without specialized equipment. The research team will be both working with a variety of metal HCF compositions and manipulating the structure of the films themselves to determine if different configurations are more or less effective.
Ultimately, Hampton hopes that the research will help identify relatively common elements—which calcium and potassium are—as candidates for use in the next generation of batteries, as a complement to popular options of today such as lithium.
The batteries which could one day result might not be for every application, but Hampton explained that they wouldn’t necessarily need to be. For example, she noted that while highly efficient lithium batteries work well when a power source that doesn’t weigh much is required, that isn’t always the primary consideration.
“Lithium is really good because it’s light—it’s the third element on the Periodic Table—but it’s not as earth-abundant as some other things,” she said. “That’s part of the interest in this material.”
“It may turn out that these new materials may not be quite as efficient, but if it’s cheaper that might be useful for some applications,” she said.
The new work follows earlier research by Hampton and her team into the creation and characteristics of thin metal films that has been supported since 2011 by a previous grant from the NSF. She will also be building on research that she conducted while on sabbatical during the 2014-15 school year as a visiting scientist at the Energy Materials Center (EMC2) at Cornell University, where she had also completed her doctorate in 2002.
Specialized equipment already at Hope for the research includes a high-resolution atomic force microscope that the college acquired in 2011 through a $214,750 award from the NSF to Hampton and Dr. Mary (Beth) Anderson of the Hope chemistry faculty. The new grant includes funds to add an electrochemical workstation to enable testing of the thin films’ charging capabilities. As with the previous instrument, the new workstation will also be available for other research projects as well as for broader use in the academic program.
“I also want to use that equipment to develop a lab unit for one of our upper-level labs in the department,” Hampton said.
Hope students are working on the research every step of the way, full-time for several weeks during the summer and part-time during the school year, including in the laboratory as well as presenting the work during professional conferences and writing articles for scholarly publications. Hampton had a team of four students working with her earlier this summer.