As part of our series exploring the edges of scientific research, we caught up with Jodie Lutkenhaus, a World Economic Forum Young Scientist who is Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and William and Ruth Neely Faculty Fellow at Texas A&M University. Jodie is harnessing the power of organic polymers to develop alternative energy resources.
What is the big problem you're trying to solve?
Batteries are an important component of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as they are powering the next generation of electric vehicles and mobile electronics. However, batteries are not often recycled, and they contain valuable materials that are scarce. As the adoption of electric vehicles rapidly expands, we are facing an urgent need to address this materials pressure - either by finding entirely new components that are sustainable and recyclable or by promoting the recycling of the batteries we already have.
What is the big idea you're trying to use to solve it?
I envision that the batteries of the future will be metal-free, organic and recyclable. Practically all batteries on the market contain metals such as cobalt, lithium, nickel, and manganese, which assist in storing and delivering energy or electrons. We've been developing a type of organic polymer that stores and delivers electrons, similar to today's battery materials. The polymers contain the same elements found in life: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Our long-term goal is to identify organic polymer chemistries that maximize performance, while providing a recyclable platform. To-date, the major benefit of these materials is their ability to fully charge in minutes, whereas today's batteries can take much longer.
How would you explain that to a 5-year-old?
We make batteries out of plastics. Imagine using materials similar to plastic bags, and designing them to power your cell phone.
What has been the most difficult/challenging part of the journey?
There are some out there who think there is no place for a polymer in a battery, so it can be a challenge to convince them otherwise. For instance, I'll often hear skepticism about the stability of our materials in the harsh environment of a battery. However, our materials can be reused thousands of times. Overtime, as more people work in the field and study these materials, I expect this skepticism will morph into curiosity.
What is the most shocking fact that people are unaware of?
When I talk with people about polymers or plastics, they often think of plastic bags, packaging, and materials for construction or transportation. They are often surprised to learn that some polymers can conduct electricity, change colours as sensors or store energy. Polymers are exciting to me because we can make them do almost anything when using the right chemistry.
Is there an interesting backstory to your work?
I was always interested in polymers that could store energy, but attending the 2017 Global Battery Alliance at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions changed my entire outlook. At that meeting, the global demand for cobalt and the dangers of child labor were discussed. I was immediately inspired to work on this problem through my knowledge and expertise in organic polymers for energy storage. We are still a ways off from truly realizing metal-free, recyclable batteries, but every year I take satisfaction that we are one step closer.