MAPLE group pursuing new approaches to energy, fuel research

Guided by an Albert Einstein admonition that "everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler," a recently created Tennessee Tech University research group is launching a variety of projects to support fundamental and applied research in electrochemical hybrid sources of energy.

The Modeling and Process Control Laboratory for Electrochemical Systems, or MAPLE lab, housed in TTU's Chemical Engineering Department recently received a $400,000 grant to develop software that will help defense researchers use more efficient, effective and safe batteries for satellite applications. The research focuses on the lithium-ion battery, which holds advantages over current batteries used in satellites.
Venkat Subramanian

"The lithium-ion battery is an ideal candidate for satellite applications because of its high energy/power density and operating voltage," said Venkat Subramanian, principal investigator of the MAPLE lab. "This project will lead to automated, maintenance free batteries used as power sources that are smaller and lighter than current batteries.

"But leakages or undesired reactions, as well as unplanned or man-made events, may cause lithium-ion batteries to fail," he explained. "We need more exact models to make predictions, and we attempt to do this by combining various mathematical and experimental techniques with efficient numerical solvers and platforms."

The group, which contains researchers including postdoctoral candidates, doctoral students, master's degree candidates and even undergraduates, pursues various areas of electrochemical systems and applied mathematics research. The MAPLE lab also recently received a $30,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a novel AC impedance model for understanding transport and kinetic limitations of electrochemical devices. This research demonstrates the development and importance of a novel numerical technique developed by the MAPLE lab.

The group is currently developing a computer controlled electrochemical hybrid power sources lab. Researchers aim to demonstrate how parallel computer clusters can solve models more efficiently and quickly, plus how batteries and fuel cells can be controlled in real-time with a computer.

"The bottom line is this work needs to be done before hybrid power systems can be used in automobiles on a practical basis," says Subramanian. "As of today, no one else has the capability and expertise to create the efficient models that look at power distribution and power supply in hybrid and stack environments."

Currently there are ways to measure and predict the behavior of batteries and fuel cells in hybrid systems, but they don't allow for real-time measurement, which is essential to developing systems for everyday use. Using advanced math techniques and efficient numerical solvers, the MAPLE group is working to determine the state of charge, or the amount of energy you can draw from the system.

"Now we can gather data in a matter of a few minutes to hours," explains Subramanian. "We need the ability to determine the state of change in real-time, in a matter of milliseconds."

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