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Matthew Ganter, left, and Christopher Schauerman are co-directors of the Battery Prototyping Center and research scientists at RIT.RIT’s 2-year-old Battery Prototyping Center just got a nod from NASA.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is looking to develop new approaches to power generation and energy storage for the development of affordable, small spacecraft, which could one day be for science, exploration, and space operations. NASA recently announced it will collaborate with RIT and seven other universities on the project.

RIT’s expertise in battery solar cell and testing played a role in NASA’s decision, said Christopher Schauerman, RIT research scientist and co-director of the prototyping center. Building viable prototypes is complex and time consuming, yet a critical step in the quest to improve methods of energy storage. Lithium-ion cell batteries, for example, must be built in a water-free environment with humidity measuring at less than 0.5 percent (humidity levels in a desert hover around 20 percent).

RIT’s $1.5 million Battery Prototyping Center is one of a kind in a university setting, according to Schauerman. It features a 1,000-square-foot dry room supported by a dehumidifier that’s the size of a tractor trailer truck. The state-of-the-art assembly equipment and environmental test chambers are on par with equipment typically found in large corporate or government-operated centers.

Currently, the center can prototype pouch-cell-size batteries that resemble those found in cell phones. NASA is interested in RIT’s research related to nanotechnology for satellite power systems.

The work includes efforts to improve lithium-ion batteries, electrical conductors, and solar cells by enhancing conventional materials with the addition of nanomaterials, Schauerman said.

A One-of-a-Kind Facility

Students working with battery prototyping equipment.The center is an open-user facility, giving companies and researchers access to a dry room and laboratory space for a fee. Companies also have the option of providing their materials and assembly formula to center personnel who would build the battery based on the company’s specifications.

Prototypes can be put through the paces, continually charged and discharged within environmentally controlled chambers that mimic extreme temperatures between 300 and minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. This testing environment, coupled with semi-automated battery assembly equipment, is impressive, but what makes the center unique is that it is not focused on one industry or chemistry. The center works with companies and government agencies from around the world.

The ultimate mission, he added, is to serve as another resource in New York state’s growing energy storage hub.

The center was made possible by support from New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA), Empire State Development (ESD), and the New York Battery and Energy Storage Technology Consortium (NY-BEST).

“Before we opened two years ago, it would be very unusual for a startup or university researcher to have access to this sort of facility,” said Matthew Ganter, center co-director and RIT research scientist. “This type of capability is typically found in a national lab like Argonne.”

Building Viable Prototypes

A step in the process of making a battery.Finding a safe “super battery” today is a big dream with lots of economic implications. But the path from prototype to industrial fulfillment is steep and fraught with barriers—especially for smaller companies and organizations.

Without access to a dry room, lithium-ion cell battery prototypes must be built manually using an oxygen- and water-free box, known as a glove box. The manual process is time-consuming and requires precision difficult to achieve in a small space. In one stage, for example, electrode-coated foil must be cut into squares the size of a credit card. Twenty to 30 pieces then must be stacked one by one with an insulating layer in between each sheet—all done via rubber gloves inserted into the glove box.

During the past two years the center has helped about two dozen companies, including Lionano Inc., a Cornell University spinoff company commercializing a new battery material that aims to increase the capacity, extend battery lifetime, and reduce charging time required for lithium-ion batteries.

Expansion and Opportunity

In the coming months, the center plans to install about $700,000 worth of additional equipment, making it possible to expand operations and add cylindrical cell capabilities. Cylindrical cell batteries are of high interest to electronic manufacturers because they are a commonly used shape and have been used for decades. Instead of stacking repeating layers of electrodes, cylindrical cells are rolled up like a newspaper.

Expansion plans also include workforce development training for RIT undergraduate and graduate students. The center plans to offer special topic classes on energy storage technology, which will include instruction on battery design for portable electronics, best practices, and performance testing. Classes could be offered as early as this fall with 20 to 30 students expected to take the course.

“We get inquiries constantly from companies and national labs that are looking for students to co-op who are already trained in energy storage, and we never have enough to send,” said Ganter. “The course will have a lab component that allows students to build a commercial-quality cell and then test performance. These students will have the type of experience that will let them get to work on day one and contribute to companies.”

Cooperative education is full-time, paid work experience directly related to a student’s course of study and career interests. Andrew Kalil, a third-year chemical engineering student, is working at the prototyping center full time as part of his co-op. “I see a huge need for this (research), and I wanted to get into the business while it is still young,” he said.

Martin Dann is pursuing a master’s degree in material science and will be working on the NASA project as part of his thesis. “Renewable energy, solar cells—that’s the publicized side—but how are you going to store the energy? That’s the challenge,” he said.