The Future of Batteries, Electric Cars, and Sustainable Energy: A Conversation with UC San Diego Professor Shirley Meng
Dr. Shirley Meng is the Zable Endowed Chair Professor in Energy Technologies and Professor of NanoEngineering and Materials Science at the University of California San Diego. Dr. Meng is the Founding Director of the Sustainable Power and Energy Center, and leads the Laboratory for Energy Storage and Conversion. She has authored more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles and six patents. She serves as the chairperson for the battery division at the Electrochemical Society, and is the Editor-in-Chief of Materials Research Society MRS Energy & Sustainability - an online journal that promotes Energy Materials Science and their socio-economic and sustainability impact.
1. Would you talk about your upbringing?
I was born in Hangzhou, China and grew up as an only child. My dad was a civil engineer who worked on hydroelectricity, so my family has had a good track record for enabling renewables. My mom was an accountant who taught me the importance of being independent financially as a female. When I was 17, I went to Singapore for my undergraduate and master's degree education, and soon became a Singaporean.
2. Why did you choose to pursue research in Materials Science and Engineering, particularly in batteries?
I chose this subject because since I was a child, I was fascinated by airplanes. I initially wanted to study aviation engineering.
However, I started working on superconductor oxides during a summer internship with a professor. I was able to familiarize myself with the complex oxides that summer, and it sparked my interests in materials science and engineering. I did a particularly fascinating experiment that made several objects levitate magnetically at liquid nitrogen temperature, which felt like a magic to me. From that point, I decided I would become a materials science expert.
2.1 Why did you start the Sustainable Power and Energy Center? What has been your favorite project or initiative? What do you envision to be the future of sustainable power and energy?
When I started SPEC in 2015, UCSD did not have a materials-focused energy center. We have had more than 15 faculty members from all different departments and divisions working on different aspects of sustainable power and energy, including solar energy, batteries, fuel cells, and system-level integration. More importantly, we are training the next-generation workforce to get ready for a huge transition to renewable energy. Solar and wind can be much more reliable if there is a reliable storage mechanism, and so in that aspect batteries are a big enabler for renewable energy penetration.
3. In a video with UCSD, you spoke about electric cars and their potential to cut carbon emissions. How does your work intersect with the electric car industry? How far have companies like Tesla come, and how far do they still have to go to make a significant impact on carbon emission reduction?
We like that people are excited by electric cars, but the industry still has a long way to go. A third of total carbon emission comes from transportation. Knowing that the efficiency of batteries is over 90% while combustion engines are only about 30-40%, we can see that batteries are a key technology for reducing carbon emissions. The grids in New York and California have had a huge penetration of renewables, so if they can charge their batteries using green electrons, that is the future.
Most people who buy electric cars are not primarily doing so because they want to cut carbon emissions, consumers simply do not make decisions like that. People appreciate better efficiency, better performance, and pleasure and joy when they drive. Tesla is one of the first few companies to do electric cars right.
Hopefully, more companies will follow in their steps, and really consider what consumers want. They do not care as much about being “green” if the technology is second-tier. But I know I will work very closely with the electric car industry to cut our emissions for many decades to come. For example, I am proud to say that more than ten of my PhD students are currently working in the electric vehicle industry since 2014.
4. What’s your favorite aspect of being a Professor of NanoEngineering and Materials Science? What is the future of these fields, and how could they contribute to combatting and recovering from COVID-19?
Being a professor, the job consists of our independent research as well as the training and education aspect. There are three things I really appreciate about my job.
First, I learn new things everyday. I have to stay at the forefront of the subject I am teaching, so I must always be learning. Not many jobs in the world can enable that.
The second thing is, I always like to implement my own ideas, and as an engineering professor, I am able to pursue my own projects and produce innovative concepts and technologies.
Third, when the bright, young students come in, you train them from knowing relatively nothing to becoming more of an expert on a particular topic than us, the teachers. Guiding these students is incredibly fulfilling and is a value not measurable by dollar signs.
In terms of combatting COVID-19, my lab was categorized as a critical operation because our battery research uses high-end scientific fabrication tools like 3-D printers. These tools can be used to produce mask and ventilator components. Also, our microscopes are useful to provide a detailed look at mask materials before and after sanitization. We can protect medical staff by determining which mask they should use, and so we spend quite some time helping the UC health system.
Remarkably, the N-95 mask’s filtration system uses similar materials as separators in batteries, so we have the right expertise.
Nothing is impossible; impossible just takes a longer time. - Dr. Meng
I think mindset is really important. When COVID-19 hit, most people were in shutdown mode. They thought that only medical staff were critical, and some thought that they should stay low. However, I think that especially for younger people, it’s time for them to actually do something to combat the pandemic. People have very different attitudes when they face a crisis, and so part of the training I give my students is to always take up challenges in life.
Nothing is impossible; impossible just takes a longer time. During the crisis time, people who have skills do well because they can use them to help whoever is in need, in this case medical staff and scientists.
Questioning science and data goes against my training principles. The laws of nature are what enabled us to do all of these magical things. Moving forward, we need to have more people trusting science, like when we say certain masks aren’t suitable for medical staff, and we show the data, we hope people listen.
5. What work with your research group, Laboratory for Energy Storage and Conversion (LESC), has been your favorite? Can you speak about your work with advanced rechargeable batteries and their applications?
SPEC is a platform where many principal investigators work together. LESC is my own group, I am the principal investigator and oversee around 20 graduate students, a few postdoctoral researchers, and some undergraduate interns. One of my most exciting accomplishments was in 2017, when we published a paper that showed a breakthrough in ultra-low temperature electrolytes that could operate in -80 ºC. In 2019, we published another work to showcase how to enable rechargeable batteries based on lithium metal anode.
Much of LESC’s work is looking at promising technologies that are ten years down the road. We divide our people into subtopics like batteries for robots, flying cars, or unique battery shapes for IOT (Internet of Things). Some people are working on designing very large-scale batteries without cobalt, nickel, or lithium, because cobalt and nickel are expensive.
We are working on sodium and potassium batteries. That may seem like sci-fi, but that is why academic research is fascinating -- to explore out-of-the-box ideas to explore different aspects of power and energy. We also look at how we can build a device where solar and batteries are integrated as a single device. We don’t have those commercial products yet, but a lot of the PhD or masters students find that to be a good place to invest their time.
6. Historically, batteries have been primarily composed of lithium. What are your views on recent safety concerns with lithium-ion batteries, including explosions or toxic gases, and what other metals might be better for battery production?
The safety issues do not directly come from lithium, but rather organic and flammable electrolytes. One sheet of lithium is very safe to handle, but it is not safe if it is in fine powder form. Safety for batteries is a complex issue -- one of the culprits is when electrolytes deliver the ions, it is hard to swap out the actual electrode.
All alkaline metals are pretty reactive, so the reason you build batteries with those reactive metals is because they are reactive. A battery is like a chemical device, so those chemicals react to give you the electrons back. The safety is really caused due to the electrolytes and design of the cells. If the battery ever shorts, it should just disintegrate, not catch fire. If engineers implement these fail-safes, then the batteries might be fine.
Solid-state batteries are getting a lot of attention because they are not flammable. My research group works closely to enable solid-states, but all of these new technologies are still in research and development.
7. What work have you done with the Electrochemical Society?
The society is more than a hundred years old! Even Thomas Edison was a member. I serve as the Battery Division chair of 1500 members all across the world. The society is a professional society where people who work on fields of electrochemistry connect and discuss new technologies during biannual meetings. The society also publishes many articles and offers rewards to young scientists -- quite a few society members have won the Nobel Prize.
We also offer job search and mentoring opportunities for students. For engineering or science students, this type of professional society is really important to ensure the longevity of the field. We want to keep attracting the best minds to come do STEM.
8. As the recently appointed Editor-in-Chief of MRS Energy & Sustainability, what is your vision for the publication?
The STEM field makes a lot of breakthrough discoveries, but we do not think about sustainability enough. Sustainability is a society-level thing -- you need community engagement. So far I think there are very few journals that integrate science, technology, and public policy.
I think MRS Energy & Sustainability is one of a kind, and so I agreed to be Editor-in-Chief to expand the publication’s audience. We want to reach out to policy makers and combine their knowledge with our objective, data-backed insights. The journal’s focus is quite unique, and I have had the opportunity to meet a lot of people in public policy and economics, and that has broadened my view on how our work can have maximal societal impact.
9. How does your career work intersect with growing interest and emphasis on ESG?
Natural gas does have a significant impact on decarbonization in the short term. A lot of the renewable technologies need time to mature and scale up. When I was young and naïve, the “evil” companies were BP, Shell, and Exxon. I want to share, however, that for early battery research, Exxon and other petroleum companies contributed a lot to build the future of energy transition.
Shell has already set their carbon-neutral goal. This is an extremely complex topic, but these companies have also started their investment portfolio in wind and renewable energies, it is simply not widely advertised. This is part of the reason for why I put the journal together. I wanted to correct the notion that sustainability and being “green” are second-tier technologies, or less profitable.
I was delighted by the success of Tesla. I truly believe that when you are combating climate change, you inherently make money, and I am very sure that more companies are going to see profitability connected to their sustainability goal. This is the part where more work is needed.
One of the problems I face is that a lot of financial analysts do not have deep scientific knowledge, and so they cannot distinguish between what is real and what is hype. When we think about divesting, I have one clear message: it should always be a team, not a person, that evaluates the holistic profile for companies. Hopefully, my book will come out soon about how to view this discussion.
Written by Michael Ding
Edited by Alexander Fleiss, Calvin Ma, Gihyen Eom & Glen Oh