The lithium age

Published: October 2nd, 2008

Category: Spotlights

Ying Shirley Meng

Ying Shirley Meng

Laboratory for Energy Conversion and Storage

When Shirley Meng looks around her laboratory, she sees a future of independence from electrical wires and gas pumps.

Meng is the director for the Laboratory for Energy Storage and Conservation in the UF College of Engineering. There, she and six students are trying to find a way to make advanced lithium ion batteries, like those in laptops and cell phones, safe and effective enough to power cars.

Meng came to the University of Florida from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was a research associate at the department of materials science and engineering. She felt it was time to experiment with what she calls her own “crazy ideas.”

She teaches a graduate class called advanced materials for energy storage and conversion.

She wants her students to feel that science is rewarding and applicable to real life, so she encourages curiosity and incorporates real-world examples into her explanations.

Meng strongly believes materials science is fundamental to human technology and wants students to share her enthusiasm. She points to the Stone Age and the Bronze Age as evidence of how materials can define society.

Hoping her research will have a similar impact, she is working on lithium batteries with higher energy density, batteries intended to hold a charge longer and help people move toward a wireless society.

Part of her work is educating the public on how to use the lithium batteries of today and tomorrow. Too many people use their batteries improperly, making them less effective, she said. For example, running the battery too low before charging it will deplete the lithium in the positive electrode and shorten its lifespan.

Meng hopes batteries will one day be able to run cars, and may even become charged by solar panels instead of the power grids. For now, her biggest challenge is to make lithium batteries safer and capable of storing more energy. If her crazy ideas turn out to be not so crazy, she could make a big impact on how we look at an electrical outlet.

“It is my dream that everyone will drive a plug-in, electric car,” she said.

Photo credit: Kristen Bartlett Grace — University Photography

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