Skip to main
Testing DNA

Mason Chemist receives NSF CAREER award to expand sustainable battery research

Dr. Chao Luo in his lab
Dr. Chao Luo in his laboratory. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services.

Luo’s research seeks to confirm and test sustainable materials as lithium alternatives to respond to increased ecofriendly battery demands and optimized energy storage in extreme conditions

George Mason University’s Chao Luo received a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award for his research into organic materials for fast-charging, high-temperature and sustainable energy storage.

As industries work to advance technologies, many strive to adopt more sustainable approaches for energy storage in portable electronics, electric vehicles, etc. Luo, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry within Mason’s College of Science, will receive a total of more than $570,000 in grant money for his work in exploring new organic materials and chemistries to develop organic electrodes and electrolyte structures for rechargeable potassium batteries.

According to Luo, most portable electronics and electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries that contain inorganic transition metals, like cobalt. Though efficient, these batteries are ultimately not sustainable and will negatively affect the environment.

Luo’s lab (including seven graduate students, two undergraduates, and one postdoc) focuses on potassium-ion battery options—a much more abundant and cheaper material than lithium. The lab also utilizes organic materials composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen to replace transition metals as they are environmentally benign and, again, low cost.

“Commercial batteries use a lot of transition metals, and we’re trying to replace those with organic materials that will allow for efficient, yet transition metal-free batteries that also perform well in extreme conditions,” said Luo. “A battery that can withstand very high temperatures and is also fast charging would be applicable in several industries.”

GivenStatista reports that the global demand for lithium-ion batteries will increase elevenfold between 2020 and 2030, the environmental and economic impact of a battery based on organic materials can make in that time. While the demand of batteries will greatly increase, the U.S. aims to make the federal government carbon-neutral by 2050, decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent by 2030, and launch an all-electric group of cars and trucks by 2035.

“The production and recycling of batteries will be essential in meeting that goal,” Luo said. “And this funding will also help us train future scientists to explore this important materials science work.”

Chemistry PhD Student Kathryn Holguin
Chemistry PhD student, Kathryn Holguin, works in Luo's to help develop new materials and chemistries for high performance and sustainable energy storage devices. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services.

Luo is actively including and mentoring Mason students in this research effort and expects the project will also incorporate middle and high school age students through Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP) and Females of Color and those Underrepresented in STEM (FOCUS) camp. These students will receive early research training on these studies with the potential for invaluable global impact. 

Luo started a battery research group at Mason when he joined the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 2019. His laboratory is able to perform all the organic synthesis with the capacity to assemble batteries and test the electrochemical performance of these organic materials. As a result, the group is able to correlate the organic structure and electrochemical performance.

After doing so, Luo’s laboratory sends their materials and cycled batteries and electrodes to a network of scientists to support additional characterizations for mechanism study. This network includes Brookhaven National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, University of Connecticut, University of Maryland at College Park, and University of Utah.

“I am very grateful and humbled to receive this award,” Luo said. “The support from the College of Science helped me to establish a strong research group at Mason.”