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
or high-tech manufacturing
Better ion filters are the key
To new, green technologies