Chemistry student seeks sustainable battery solutions for new technologies
As industries work to advance technologies, many strive to adopt more sustainable approaches (think electric cars). This has led, in many cases, to an increased demand for lithium, the element of choice for batteries the past few decades, powering everything from computers, to phones, and now cars. Yet, sometimes a solution for one problem leads to another.
“They started realizing that some of the components of lithium batteries are not only expensive, but also environmentally toxic, which you don’t want in something you're using long-term,” said Kathryn Holguin, a graduate student at Mason working towards her PhD in Chemistry. Holguin, who also earned her BA and MA in Chemistry from Mason, focuses her research on sustainable alternatives to lithium-based batteries—looking specifically at designing sodium ion and potassium ion batteries.
“You want to find something that’s environmentally benign,” she said. “You want to have something inexpensive, sustainable, something that's reusable, rechargeable, and that’s going to have a long, long cycle life.”
Holguin works closely with her advisor, Assistant Professor Chao Luo, whose research also focuses on developing new materials and chemistries for high performance and sustainable energy storage devices. The work in Luo’s lab this past year, which includes Holguin and other Mason students and alumni, produced two publications in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journals Energy & Environmental Science and Chemical Communications, and another article published in Advanced Functional Materials.
Holguin describes this group as incredibly collaborative and said the lab environment is both supportive and, in ways, inspiring. “Dr. Luo is brilliant and truly kind and encouraging,” Holguin said. “He answers my questions in ways that really get me thinking. It’s wonderful to have such a supportive PI (principal investigator) that wants you to succeed.”
Like many people, the road to success is not always a straight line. Hitting a figurative wall in 2019, Holguin said she selected to take a year off between her PhD coursework and dissertation research to give some time for herself. “You have to know yourself and become your greatest advocate,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘you know what, I need to take a break’.” The break was worth it—providing a renewed love for the sciences and collaboration with Dr. Luo that led to her current dissertation research and recent publications.
Holguin said she’s had a love for science since high school. After graduating high school, she worked for the Army handling weapons testing when she then decided to earn her bachelor’s, and later her master’s degree. She continues to work on her dissertation focused on organic electrode materials (OEMs)—specifically in sodium and potassium batteries and is on track to graduate with her doctorate in Summer 2021.
“The work we’re doing here is not isolated,” Holguin said. “It’s not a situation where we’re in the lab and making something just for the sake of it. It actually has greater implications, and hopefully, a larger impact on the scientific community and environmental sustainability.”