Researching A Green, Solid-State Future

September 9, 2019 | The future of batteries will be solid-state—at least that’s the belief of Dr. Alla Smirnova, Professor at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and Director of the newly-established Center for Green Solid State Electric Power Generation and Storage (CEPS).

Smirnova received a $60,000 planning grant in January 2019 from the National Science Foundation to create CEPS as an industry/university cooperative research center. Four universities, each considered project sites, have partnered with CEPS and received 25% of the planning grant. The NSF also requires that centers secure at least three company partnerships per university site; each company contributing $50,000 as a full membership fee. The NSF will match the $50,000 membership fee for the first three industry partners up to $600,000 per year.

NSF will evaluate CEPS’ progress during a planning grant meeting later this week, September 12-13, 2019. If the requirements are in place and CEPS can show it can attract members from industry, Smirnova will submit a full grant in December, requesting $600,000 per year for 5 years in grant funding for the project, that will be matched by industry.

In advance of the planning grant meeting—and the upcoming Battery Safety Summit (October 22-25, Alexandria, Virginia) at which Smirnova is speaking—Battery Power Online talked with her about her vision for green energy storage, the future of solid-state storage, and her goals for CEPS.

Editor’s Note: Alevtina Smirnova will be speaking at the Increasing Efficiency and Thermal Stability of Lithium-Ion Batteries meeting at the Battery Safety Summit, October 22-25, in  Alexandria, Virginia. Hannah Loss, a Cambridge Innovation Institute program producer, spoke with Smirnova for a podcast in advance of the Battery Safety Summit. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity for inclusion in Battery Power Online.

Battery Power Online: In your view, what defines sustainable or green energy storage around which much of your research focuses?

Alla Smirnova: Green energy storage is all about sustainable energy and sustainable environment. This is a very big deal for our state and for the nation because sustainable energy and sustainable environment are inseparable. Because conventional batteries have many problems, it is very important to start working on the next generation of solid-state energy technology. That is what we’re doing now.

In addition to being a professor at South Dakota School of Mines, you’re Director at the Center for Green Solid State Electric Power Generation and Storage. How did CEPS come about and what’s its mission?

I came to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in 2011, and in the beginning, I continued working on electrochemical mechanisms in different types of fuel cells. Later, due to NASA support, we started working on lithium-ion batteries.  At that time, we realized that conventional batteries had reached their limits of technical capabilities and that we needed a fundamentally new approach. This approach is called solid-state energy storage technology.

In 2018, our research efforts to develop a solid-state battery were supported by the Department of Defense, and in 2019 a project to establish an industry-university collaborative research center (IUCRC) in solid-state energy technology was approved by the NSF.

It was a big surprise, and a big deal for our state of South Dakota. The mission of the center is to accelerate research and development for the next generation of energy storage. We plan to introduce this new technology to the market. However, it is a very, very big challenge. It can be solved effectively and efficiently through combined efforts between academia, industry, state and federal agencies, and national labs. This is a big effort initiated by the National Science Foundation and we’re very grateful for their decision.

We’re in the very beginning of establishing the center. Currently the center involves four universities: three universities in South Dakota and the Northeastern University in Boston. We also involve many companies from various industry sectors such as automotive, medical, electric, power grid, portable, and many others.

And if energy scientists want to get involved in the Center, is there a way to go about doing that?

Interested scientists can join the Center. As I mentioned, we have four universities, but in the future we can expand. We plan to involve other universities. Companies are more than welcome to join the Center as members of the team. We’ll have the first planning grant meeting that will take place on the South Dakota School of Mines campus, which is about 20 miles from the Mount Rushmore.  The information about the center is available on our website: The world map on this website reflects many visitors interested in this technology. This number grows every day and reflects an interest around the world. The names of the attendees for this meeting in September are also available on the website. Among them, big companies such as GE, Ford, Bühler, Corning Glass, and others. We are welcome other scientists and companies to join us at the meeting on September 12.

Your personal research is on anti-perovskite crystal structures. Can you explain how these structures can be used for solid-state energy?

There are many different types of solids. There are many electrolytes that can be used for the solid-state energy storage technology. They involve different types, such as garnets, LISICONs, ceramic and glass-ceramic materials. Many schools and companies are working with these solid-state electrolytes. We are working specifically on different glass-ceramic materials as solid-state electrolytes. They are called anti-perovskites, and we believe that they present a better choice than ceramic materials or polymer composite materials that are currently under investigation by others. The reason for that is that they are cost effective, they have low melting points, they don’t have green boundary effect, and they have wide voltage range. Furthermore, they’re stable in presence of lithium metal—in the other words stable to the reduction by lithium metal.

There are other advantages of anti-perovskites. They have low energy barrier for lithium transport. They have very high band gap. That means that their self-discharge is small and corresponds to a long shelf-life. These materials are also cost-effective and eco-friendly.

Can you explain how that’s more eco-friendly? Do the batteries last longer? How are you defining eco-friendly in this case?

Eco-friendly is the term that we are using, comparing solid state electrolytes to liquid electrolytes. Liquids are very harmful for the environment. It is hard to collect this waste and to dispose of it. And in case of solid-state batteries with solid-state electrolytes, there are liquids which—in contact with the moisture from the atmosphere—form hazardous waste. They also have other components that are very harmful for the environment. Our materials, on the other hand, contain only lithium and a couple of halogens or oxygen atoms.

Where do you see solid-state research and solid-state technologies heading in the future from your research and others?

Our research group is not the only one working with anti-perovskites-based solid-state electrolytes. There are other groups that are working with glass ceramics, but as we know it takes on average 10 years to introduce new material or a new technology to the market. While introducing this new technology to the market, there are many different steps and challenges that should be overcome.

It is not by chance that the major companies in the United States and around the world form different types of consortia and invest billions of dollars in the development of the next generational solid-state battery technology. The solid-state energy storage is basically our future. Sustainable energy and sustainable environment are inseparable and rely on green electric power storage as the key to the problem. By developing this technology, we are saving the environment and the planet.