Chemist Deyang Qu
What would it take to produce a fully electric vehicle that will reduce our dependency on fossil fuels? That would be a battery that allows a vehicle to travel up to 300 miles between charges, virtually eliminating the need for a gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine, replies UMass Boston Associate Professor of Chemistry Deyang Qu.
The challenge is to create the chemistry to pack that much energy into a battery of practical size and weight. And Qu and his research group—considered one of the leading groups in the world in this area—are on the case. Their specific focus: perfecting the lithium air battery.
What makes this type of battery so appealing to industry? Qu explains: “If you look at the periodic table for two elements you can combine to give maximum energy from a chemical standpoint, they are metallic lithium and oxygen.” The beauty of this system, he says, is its low weight, since oxygen is obtained from the surrounding air. And the enormous amount of energy the system can produce between charges is good news for automakers.
Success in developing a lithium air battery for practical use, however, remains elusive for researchers throughout the world. One problem is figuring out how to harness the oxygen while blocking out the moisture in the air, since lithium reacts violently to water. Another obstacle: the low number of times a lithium air battery can be recharged. Qu’s group has achieved 100 recharges. That’s well beyond what other researchers have done, but not yet financially viable for consumer use.
Powering vehicles is just one aspect of Qu’s pursuit to turn chemical energy into electricity. Another is the development of specialized energy storage and supply systems—fuel cells and supercapacitors—to power technology for military use or space missions. He regularly visits the Office of Naval Research, a major funder of his work, to stay abreast of changing needs. To support troops in Afghanistan, his group developed a fuel cell that would function well in the cold, but as that operation winds down, new military challenges will start to emerge. “You have to understand the needs of the customer,” he says. “Then you look and see what you can contribute—what you’re good at and also interested in.”
Qu’s first experience with electrochemistry was in elementary school when he saw a demonstration of a water-activated battery similar to those used in an airplane’s black box. “The guy put the battery into the middle of a fish tank, it lit up, and all the fish in the tank swam to it. That was amazing,” he recalls. He earned his BS in chemistry from Wuhan University in China, and in 1993 his PhD from the University of Ottawa in Canada. That same year, he won the Electrochemical Society’s Student Research Award in the Battery Division.
After about a dozen years in industrial research and development, Qu joined the UMass Boston faculty in 2005 and has been closely involved with the university’s pioneering PhD Program in Green Chemistry. He has particularly enjoyed seeing UMass Boston transform itself into an urban research university while maintaining its traditional teaching mission.
He also appreciates working with a large urban student population that includes students from underrepresented ethnic groups. To serve students well, he states, “you have to do cutting-edge research to give them the opportunity to explore the world.” This means including undergraduates as well as graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in his laboratory, and they all rise to the challenge.
Qu’s immediate goals are to keep growing his group and to continue his work to develop longer and stronger energy storage systems. “From a military standpoint, our work can improve our troops’ ability to defend this country,” he says. “Also, if we can be at all successful in reducing our dependency on fossil fuels, cutting greenhouse gases, and contributing to conserving the earth’s limited energy resources, then we will have done a service to humankind.”
- $1.6 million in federal grants from the U.S. Army Research Office, NASA, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
- 4 patents
- 35 journal articles published