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Howie Chu

College: City College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2014

Powering Up for 21st Century

You probably don’t realize it, but when you use a battery, it undergoes mechanical changes, such as expansion caused by the electrochemical processes inside. This doesn’t make much of a difference in your flashlight, but if you’re trying to maximize battery life in a hybrid or electric car, it can make all the difference in the world.

Howie Chu (City College, B.E. in chemical engineering, 2013) is using a 2014 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to study the interplay of electrochemical and mechanical phenomena in batteries.

Now a doctoral student in the Monroe Research Group at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Chu says, “Manufacturers give you a small window of battery usage in order to prevent mechanical failure. I believe that by implementing a better control system, we could get more life out of batteries.” He believes that it may be possible to get as much as five times as much usable capacity out of an automotive lithium battery.

His research involves running batteries at various rates, charging and discharging them, and measuring the stress and strain when the battery is under an electrical load. Expansion and contraction of materials inside the battery can eventually degrade connections, leaving the battery useless, even if a charge remains.

Chu has been interested in batteries since he was a youngster, when he would see how long he could play video games before he lost battery power.

At City College, a professor, Dan Steingart, who is now at Princeton, asked him to help study alkaline batteries with “compliant architectures,” like flexible or stretchy batteries, rather than the traditional hard cell. “These could be useful for wearable technology and sensors,” he says. (Another 2014 NSF winner, Alla Zamarayeva, worked in this lab on sprayable batteries.)

Chu rounded out his undergraduate education with a summer research experience for undergraduates, funded by the National Science Foundation, at Penn State University and an internship at the Palo Alto Research Center Inc. (formerly Xerox Parc). Both projects also involved batteries.

The National Science foundation Graduate Research Fellowship is the most prestigious for graduate studies in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. This federal grant provides $132,000 over three years for doctoral-level research.