Newswise — Batteries have a lot in common with fish. And flocks of birds. And maybe even herds of caribou and tundra landscapes.
Lucia Gauchia sees the connection. She has a dual appointment in electrical engineering and mechanical engineering as an assistant professor at Michigan Technological University. As the US looks to update its electrical grid infrastructure, Gauchia plans to help by learning more about how ecological systems can inspire better designs and scalability.
For her creative and in-depth interdisciplinary work, she earned a prestigious CAREER Award from NSF. The grant is $500,000 that covers five years of research to improve battery life specifically.
When batteries drain, people say they're dead. Recharging them is not the only way to bring them back to life: Gauchia studies what's called a battery's second life, when it is repurposed for a new use.
"There is a life cycle for batteries that includes different applications and tasks," she says. "But everything was designed and tested for the first life, even if they end up having multiple lives."
The challenge in Gauchia's research is that current battery testing methods are insufficient for measuring their multi-life effectiveness. Assessments tend to be linear with set conditions that do not reflect how people actually use batteries and the cold, heat, moisture and other conditions they might be subjected to. Additionally, battery systems scale: one battery goes into a module of battery units and modules make up packs.
"The only common thread I saw was that they have a lot in common with ecological systems," Gauchia says, explaining that testing a battery is like studying a fish in a pond. "In engineering, we take the fish out of the pond and expect to be able to tell how it's going to live in the pond; ecologists do not extract their subjects from their environment."
So, she turned to ecology-based methods using Bayesian networks that quantify individuals, groups and their interactions with their environment. Gauchia figured if the techniques can be applied to animals and plants, then they could be replicated for batteries and energy storage. By observing these data patterns, she can do cross-level testing to see what holds true from batteries to packs to modules. The analyses should help better predict when a battery might fail in any of its life stages.
Gauchia's batteries and data will also be used in her undergraduate classes; students will be able to work hands-on and through online courses to run short-term tests that mirror Gauchia's own long-term ones. During the summer, she plans to mentor young Hispanic women through the MICUP program that brings students from community colleges in downstate Michigan to Houghton for six-week internships.
By connecting students, ecology and energy storage, she can take the promise of battery technology and help ensure that batteries have a stable and reliable future with many productive lives.