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Naval Research Grant Will Speed UH Work on Materials, Energy

January 19, 2016
Naval Research Grant Will Speed UH Work on Materials, Energy

A grant from the Office of Naval Research will help researchers from across the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering more efficiently test advanced materials being developed with funding from the Department of Defense.

Venkat Selvamanickam, M.D. Anderson Professor of mechanical engineering, said he will use the $810,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research to purchase a physical properties measurement system (PPMS), which will allow researchers to more quickly test the advanced materials being produced in their laboratories.

Selvamanickam, who also is director of the Applied Research Hub at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH (TcSUH), said the new equipment will allow his lab to expedite its research on the development of improved superconducting wire.

The money comes from an Office of Naval Research (ONR) program to fund new equipment needed for research sponsored by that office or other Department of Defense research programs. Selvamanickam, whose work includes efforts to commercialize high-temperature superconducting wire, has a number of eligible grants.

The new PPMS won’t be used only for superconductor technology, he said, but will benefit a variety of materials research, including solar cells, batteries, graphene, thermoelectrics and flexible electronics. It will allow testing at a wider range of temperatures, from near 0 degrees Kelvin to room temperature, and over a wide range of magnetic fields, up to 140,000 gauss. That’s up from 90,000 gauss for the current equipment, which also is limited to use only for superconductor wires.

Yan Yao, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UH, is among the other faculty who will use the new equipment. His research group focuses on green and sustainable organic materials for energy generation and storage. He also is a principal investigator for TcSUH.

“With the addition of PPMS, we will be able to obtain a fundamental understanding of how the transport properties of two-dimensional layered metal chalcogenides are influenced with the change of interlayer distance and the pillar materials,” he said. That should offer valuable feedback for an effort funded by the ONR’s Young Investigator Program to design better magnesium-ion intercalation materials.

Selvamanickam said the current testing system limits his lab to testing no more than three samples a week; the new system will increase that to as many as seven samples a week, in addition to providing a wider range of valuable information.

“It creates a big bottleneck,” he said. “Until we measure, we can’t proceed. With better measurement, we can make materials better, faster.”

For more information, read the original news release.

UH Researcher Joins Project to Transform Energy Storage

December 06, 2015
UH Researcher Joins Project to Transform Energy Storage

A University of Houston engineer will lead development of a key component for a new, all solid-state sodium battery with the potential to revolutionize the nation’s electric grid.

Yan Yao, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UH, will work with a team of researchers and battery company Solid Power to produce a low-cost, safe and efficient sodium battery for grid-scale energy storage and other applications. The project is supported by $2.9 million in funding from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

Yao, who also is a principal investigator for the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, said there are three reasons for the work.

While conventional lithium-ion batteries have proven effective at storing energy on a limited scale, the liquid electrolyte in the batteries is flammable; a solid-state sodium battery would be much safer, he said, as well as less expensive and able to store greater amounts of energy.

Yao, whose research group focuses on green and sustainable organic materials for energy generation and storage, will create a new battery cathode, the terminal from which electrical current leaves the battery.

Other researchers include principal investigator Steve W. Martin at Iowa State University; Sehee Lee at the University of Colorado-Boulder; Scott Beckman and Soumik Banerjee at Washington State University, and Josh Buettner-Garrett at Solid Power.

Existing sodium-sulfur batteries for grid energy storage operate at temperatures between 300 and 350 degrees Celsius, using molten sodium and sulfur separated by a solid electrolyte membrane; Yao said those have safety and durability concerns, as well as high production costs. The battery proposed by the researchers would operate near room temperature and, with an all solid-state design, would be more robust, scalable to manufacture and composed entirely of recyclable and renewable materials.

The project is one of 41 cutting-edge energy technologies funded in a $125 million ARPA-E initiative, OPEN 2015. ARPA-E funds innovative technologies that display promise for both technical and commercial impact, but are too early for private-sector investment.

The ARPA-E announcement noted the climate change talks in Paris and global efforts to lower carbon emissions. Large-scale energy storage is considered key to broader adoption of both solar and wind energy, allowing energy generated during sunny and windy periods to be stored for use at a future time.

But Yao said any storage system will have to avoid several hurdles: It must be inexpensive to produce, have high energy density and avoid the flammability and other safety issues inherent in many batteries. Sodium is a soft, highly reactive metal, widely available across the world, he said.

For more information, read the original news release.

Texas Scientist Aims to Revolutionize Electricity Grid

December 10, 2015
Texas Scientist Aims to Revolutionize Electricity Grid

Congrats to Prof. Paul Chu, who was one of five speakers at the TAMEST Research Summit, held on November 12-13 in Austin, TX. The Academy of Medicine, Engineering, and Science of Texas (TAMEST) held the summit, the first of its kind in Texas, to bring together heads of federal agencies and Texas¹ top researchers to better understand and attract federal funding for scientific research in the state. Prof. Chu spoke about the highlights and promise of energy storage research and development in Texas.

For more details see:

12/10/2015 "Texas Scientist Aims to Revolutionize Electricity Grid," Texas Tribune article by Jim Malewitz. Utilize the following link:

In addition, Dr. Chu was interviewed on the Texas Standard public radio program on December 11 regarding energy storage. See the following link for "How Should Texas Store Energy?":

For more information, read the original news release.


June 23, 2015

HOUSTON, June 23, 2015 - Researchers from the University of Houston have devised a new formula for calculating the maximum efficiency of thermoelectric materials, the first new formula in more than a half-century, designed to speed up the development of new materials suitable for practical use.

By using the new formula for calculation, which relies upon newly developed measurements for the figure of merit and power factor of a material - called the engineering figure of merit, or (ZT)eng, and engineering power factor, or (PF)eng - scientists will be able to determine whether devices based on a material would generate energy efficiently enough to be worth pursuing, said Zhifeng Ren, principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH (TcSUH).

"This is a form for the quick screening of materials," said Ren, who is also M.D. Anderson Chair professor of physics at UH. "If the engineering ZT is not high enough, don't waste your time trying to build a device.

"The new formula for calculation is explained in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Ren was lead author, working with Gang Chen, an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Paul Ching-Wu Chu, T.L.L. Temple Chair of Science and founding director of TcSUH; and Hee Seok Kim and Weishu Liu, both physicists and researchers at TcSUH.

Thermoelectric materials produce electricity by exploiting the flow of heat current from a warmer area to a cooler area, and the formula still widely used in the field dates to the 1950s, created by Russian physicist Abram F. Ioffe.

In thermoelectric materials, efficiency is calculated as the measure of how well it converts heat - often waste heat generated by power plants or other industrial processes - into power. For example, a material that takes in 100 watts of heat and produces 10 watts of electricity has an efficiency rate of 10 percent. Top efficiency for current thermoelectric materials is about 12 percent, Ren said.

Ioffe's formula assumes the thermoelectric properties remain constant despite the variation in temperature along the length of the material, Ren said. That isn't the case for many materials, and the Ioffe formula is accurate only for thermoelectric materials that operate within a small range of temperatures or those in which the relationship between the dimensionless figure of merit ZT and temperature progresses in a linear fashion.

But that relationship often isn't linear, making the efficiency value produced by the Ioffe formula inaccurate, Ren said. That means new materials with high peak ZT, determined to be highly efficient according to the Ioffe formula, may not work as well in practice if the (ZT)eng is not also high, he said.

"The conventional efficiency formula often misleads and gives rise to an impractically high efficiency prediction," the researchers wrote. "For this reason, it is desirable to establish a new model to predict the energy conversion efficiency based on the temperature-dependent individual TE (thermoelectric) properties for devices operating under a large temperature difference."

The researchers actually report two new formulas, one of which also takes into account the Thomson effect, the heat produced by Seebeck when it is temperature dependent along its length. That formula can be used to determine maximum efficiency for any thermoelectric material, Ren said; the other formula developed by the researchers can be used when Thomson heat is ignored.

For more information, read the original news release.

Winners of Bernd T. Matthias Prize Announced

June 11, 2015
Winners of Bernd T. Matthias Prize Announced

Three scientists have been named as recipients of the 2015 Bernd T. Matthias Prize for Superconducting Materials, an international prize awarded for innovative contributions to the field. The winners are Xianhui Chen of the University of Science and Technology of China, Zachary Fisk of the University of California-Irvine and Zhongxian Zhao of the Institute of Physics, Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing.

The prize was created in 1989 by friends and colleagues of Bernd T. Matthias, a German-born physicist who immigrated to the United States in 1947 and is noted for his discovery of nearly 1,000 superconducting materials. The Texas Center for Superconductivity at the University of Houston (TcSUH) has sponsored the prize since 2000.

In addition to sharing the $6,000 prize, each winner will receive a framed certificate designed by Elsevier Publishers. The prize will be formally presented during the 2015 M2S-HTSC international conference in Geneva, Switzerland, in August.

For more information, read the original news release.

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