2021 Slam Top 12 Finalists

Ryan's Interview with Brian Malow

"If The Shoe Fits"

Ryan Kingsbury

Energy Technologies

How many of you can reach out and touch a battery, right now?

I’m guessing all of you,

Because batteries are everywhere these days

In your phone, your laptop

Maybe even your car.

And those batteries use small, charged particles

called lithium ions to generate power

So the more batteries we need

The more lithium we need

But right now, lithium is only produced in a few places that are far away from here

So as lithium becomes more important

We need to start producing it closer to home

That’s why the state of CA has spent

Millions of dollars

Trying to filter lithium ions

From water in the Salton Sea

But filtering ions is hard, because

Lithium ions are mixed together with many other ions

like sodium, magnesium, and chloride,

And our filters don’t do a good job picking out the lithium

This challenge we face here makes me think of the story of Cinderella

Where the prince has to search an entire

Village full of people

To find the one person

He’s looking for

Now we know that he does that by using

a glass slipper

A material that is so well tailored to the unique characteristics

Of Cinderella’s foot that it won’t fit anyone else

Making it the perfect filter.

But when it comes to filtering ions,

We don’t consider all their unique characteristics

Historically, we’ve designed our filters based only on their size and charge

And this doesn’t work very well because

there are a lot of different ions

with about the same size and charge.

So it’s hard to tell them apart.

It’s like going to the village

To find Cinderella and saying

She’s tall and has blue eyes

It’s not precise enough

My research is about making glass slippers, for ions

filtration materials that are precise enough to pick out just the ion we want

In order to find the perfect fit,

I need to try on hundreds or thousands of materials

To see how they interact with the unique properties of an ion

Doing that by trial and error in a lab could take years or even decades

So instead, I use quantum chemistry simulations

To help me understand those unique properties

And then predict how well a filter is going to fit,

Before going to the lab

Shortening the time to discovery.

And this isn’t just for lithium

I can apply this approach to any kind of ion filtration problem.

For example, if we can filter industrially important metals like cobalt for batteries

Or neodymium for the magnet in your hard drive

We can transform industrial supply chains with new ways of recycling waste.

And with better filters for pollutants like nitrate or phosphate

We could develop additional sources of clean water

To help us adapt to a changing climate

So whether we’re talking about

clean energy,

clean water,

or high-tech manufacturing

Better ion filters are the key

To new, green technologies