It seems only fitting that as I headed to my recent interview appointment with Texas A&M chemist Sarbajit Banerjee for a story to announce a research breakthrough involving batteries that the one in my cell phone was down to 20 percent. And that midway through my third question, he had to scramble for a power adapter because the one in his laptop was dying.
The folks who constantly remind us that science is all around us aren’t exaggerating. Batteries are one of the most ubiquitous and vital examples as the fuel for our cell phones alone. All the more reason Dr. Banerjee’s news is something to write/text home about.
Banerjee and a team of collaborators that spans the better part of the North American continent have directly observed for the first time the distorted, electron-trapping structure within cathode material that causes the everyday delays we experience when charging or discharging batteries. They were able to do this with the help of powerful soft X-ray microscopes at the Canadian Light Source (CLS), a massive facility equipped with an equally massive light source the size of five football fields, along with a beamline that can be focused down to the nanoscale.
“People here use all kinds of different x-rays and such, spanning a big part of the electromagnetic spectrum,” Banerjee explains. “This is basically a humongous light source that gives you intense beams of light you can get at any energy. My group especially likes to work on soft X-rays, which are kind of like your biological X-rays but very intense, well-resolved beams.
“This facility is one of the few places in the world that has such a beam that you can shrink down. So you’re not only taking an X-ray of an object, you’re shrinking it down — taking an X-ray image down to about 30 nanometers pixel size. That’s really what allowed us to see what we did. It’s a very powerful microscope that’s one of its kind, and it allows us to solve these problems.”
So, what powers Banerjee’s lab? In a word, energy and related research of all different flavors, with Canadian oil being one of the most prominent. One Canadian company in particular funds a large part of his laboratory (the bulk of the rest being the National Science Foundation) for specifically designed surfaces research, and from the videos he showed me, boy, is it cool, in addition to patent-pending. He says it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement that has allowed him and his students to explore intriguing horizons outside the bounds of normal academic science.
“We have all kinds of crazy projects that have nothing to do with basic science,” Banerjee says, the sheer joy readily apparent in his smiling face and eyes. “So, yeah, a wide variety of industrial sponsors support the rest of my lab apart from the NSF and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which funded a recent three-year research project on solar energy. I also have a Department of Defense project. But it’s a large lab, so you need all different kinds of support and projects.”
Speaking of all different kinds, Banerjee clued me in to two interesting tie-ins related to the battery project. For starters, the X-ray technology used is predicated on Baez mirrors — as in Albert Baez, the father of 1960s American folk singer Joan Baez.
“Her dad actually was one of the people who invented ways for handling these x-rays — trivia fact,” Banerjee says. “It’s Baez mirrors that go into it. My dad used to listen to her.”
Banerjee also noted that these big light sources his research requires are few and far between. Before his team moved to the CLS’ Scanning Transmission X-ray Microscope (STXM), they ran their initial experimentation at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) at Brookhaven National Laboratory — a facility since replaced by the NSLS II, built by Texas A&M physicist Steven Dierker, husband of Texas A&M Dean of Science Meigan Aronson, just prior to coming to Texas A&M.
Yep, it’s a small, cool world after all. Trippy!
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A postscript, courtesy of one of Banerjee’s Canadian Light Source collaborators, CLS Spectromicroscopy beamline scientist Jian Wang:
“Also very interesting that Prof. Banerjee’s last Nature Communications paper using CLS STXM and other techniques and computation was published on June 28 in 2011, exactly five years ago. It has been one of the best papers for our beamline, and I believe the current one will also have great impact on the relevant field.”
My kind of date with destiny. Way to go, Dr. Banerjee, and keep on truckin’!