History of electrochemical research at LBL goes way back

July 17, 1992

By Jeffery Kahn, [email protected]

The long research road leading to a commercial electric vehicle battery crisscrosses Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Four decades ago, UC Berkeley professor Charles Tobias founded an electrochemical research program at LBL. Tobias' scientific approach revolutionized the field. Today, Tobias, who continues his research, is widely regarded as the father of electrochemical engineering.

Over the years, the electrochemical program at Berkeley has grown into what today is perhaps America's largest collaborative national laboratory and university electrochemical research program. The Berkeley Electrochemical Research Center is directed by Elton Cairns, director of LBL's Energy and Environment Division. Cairns has headed the program since 1978. "Our research," he says, "covers virtually every type of electrochemical energy storage system that is considered of interest."

It began with Tobias. He set up a nascent program at LBL that soon included collaborations with Charles Wilke and Donald Hanson, fellow chemical engineering faculty members of Tobias'. At the time, Cairns was a UCB chemical engineering graduate student.

"Until Tobias' time," says Cairns, "electrochemical engineering was more folklore than science. People relied on their experience and used trial and error to make improvements. They were like the winemakers of the day. They would take a hunch and give it a try. For instance, to get better electroplating results, they would add molasses. They didn't know why molasses worked, just that it did the job."

Tobias sought to replace these empirical, almost mystical approaches, introducing the methods of exact science. He studied fluid flow, electric potential fields, thermodynamic and materials properties, and mass transfer, linking his findings into a new discipline.

Commenting on Tobias' contributions, recently retired LBL electrochemist Rolf Muller wrote, "The results of these efforts have not only aided our understanding of the complex, interrelated phenomena that control electrochemical processes, but also established the ability to predict their performance and thereby intelligently design them. This major advance has effectively transformed this important field from an art to a science."

Computers came into use during those years. Tobias and his colleagues pioneered in the use of computers to design and model electrochemical systems. LBL Materials Sciences Division researcher John Newman's current work, the mathematical modeling of electro- chemical systems, is an offshoot of this early use of computers.

Tobias and his coworkers also did pioneering research with nonaqueous solvents. Decades later, this opened the way for the lithium battery that has emerged as a leading candidate to power tomorrow's electric vehicles.

Solvents -- they dissolve the electrolyte, making it possible for electricity to flow between the electrodes of a cell -- had been water-based prior to Tobias' work. Aqueous solvents, however, had disadvantages. They ruled out the use of a number of promising electrode materials, which could react with the water to create hydrogen gas and an explosion. Lithium, sodium, and potassium cannot be combined with an aqueous solvent but can safely react with the nonaqueous solvents that Tobias first introduced.

During the first two decades, Tobias, Muller, and Newman were the mainstays of LBL's electrochemistry program. In the 1970s, they were joined by Cairns, and by Lutgard De Jonghe, Jim Evans, and Phil Ross of LBL's Materials Sciences Division, and later by Frank McLarnon and Kimio Kinoshita of LBL's Energy and Environment Division.

Cairns came to LBL from General Motors Research Laboratories. At that time, the Department of Energy assigned LBL and Sandia National Laboratories major research and management responsibilities for its Electrochemical Energy Storage Program. Under this continuing program, LBL researchers invent and evaluate promising new electrochemical systems. Technologies are ripened at LBL and then passed on for commercial development either to Sandia or to industry.

Cairns, like Tobias, is a former president of The Electrochemical Society. Currently, he is North American editor of "Electrochimica Acta," the journal of the International Society of Electrochemistry.

"Together, LBL and UCB have probably the country's largest electrochemical research effort," Cairns says. "But compared to the country's accelerator or fusion programs, the effort is small science. In recent years, the federal government has been spending about $30-50 million a year on electrochemical research and development, as has industry. Compare that to the $5 billion in annual battery sales just in the U.S. alone. These figures show why the national laboratory effort is so critical."

For 40 years, LBL and UCB researchers have explored fundamental questions about what limits the performance of electrochemical cells. Through their experiments, batteries have been developed with longer lifetimes, greater storage capabilities, and greater specific energy per units of mass and volume. Throughout these decades, scores and scores of graduate students have come through the program.

"Unless you are an educator," Cairns says, "it is difficult to fully appreciate this. The LBL-UCB program is the primary training ground and source of electrochemical engineering researchers for this country. Our students filter out, and can be found in virtually every important research program in the country and in laboratories all over the world. Ultimately, this is a great legacy of the program."