Clemson researchers develop ‘smart’ material for clean energy

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Before the commercial manufacturing of new clean energy production and storage devices can begin, Clemson University researchers say they must first develop a material that will remain stable once it becomes conductive and is used to capture and store the energy.

Clemson professor and physical chemist Dvora Perahia said the design of “smart” material would drive the production of clean energy for enhanced, fuel-efficient transportation.

“We are hard at work to design new polymers for energy applications,” she said. Polymers are very large molecules widely used to make tough, lightweight materials.

Perahia said the transport of ions and electrons in clean energy applications prompts changes in the structure and composition within the polymer.

For example, molecules absorb sunlight and transform them into solar energy, but the light must be captured without greatly disturbing the structure of the polymer, she said. In polymer lithium batteries, a chemical reaction is needed for electricity and storage generation, but the reaction can damage the batteries’ components.

Perahia’s research team is working on tailoring segments with properties that will enhance the transport of either ions or electrons for clean energy applications while retaining the unique strength and flexibility of the polymers.

Because polymers form durable, light materials, Perahia said scientists have incorporated segments that transport ions or electrons, making the polymers the electrolytic media in fuel cells, polymeric membranes in batteries, or solar energy capturing layers in solar cells.

For clean energy applications, the polymers must be highly conductive while remaining stable, she said. The molecule’s properties must not alter their durability or they may lose the capacity to transport and remain an effective component in a device.

Using neutron techniques, Perahia said her team probes the molecular origin of the polymer toughness and transport.

The unique molecular picture obtained from neutron scattering and computational studies can provide the clues needed to tailor the chemistry of polymers and optimize them for the application, she said. “If the polymer does not remain mechanically and chemically intact, the device will fail.”

Perahia said her research could help design materials that can effectively transport energy and be incorporated into devices without failure for a long time, she said. “We are preparing for technology that will be ready down the road.”

 

 

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