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Faculty Profile: UVA Chemical Engineering Professor, Gary Koenig, Ph.D.

In September 2016, Samsung issued a massive recall of the Galaxy Note 7 phone after a manufacturing defect caused the phones’ batteries to generate excessive heat and catch fire. The exploding phone PR nightmare gave everyone who carries a cell phone reason to consider quality assurance in battery manufacturing.

Gary Koenig, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at UVA developed a new analytical tool for battery materials while researching an entirely different type of batteries known as flow batteries. Flow battery systems are massive in scale and hold and pump liquid acidic electrolytes between cell stacks to generate energy. The energy density in flow batteries is typically very low, so flow systems are best used for large scale stationary applications such as storing energy from renewable sources including wind or solar.

In studying an unusual type of flow battery that relies on solid particles, Koenig focused on how the size, shape, and aggregation of the particles impacted the performance of the battery. To understand the properties of the particles, his team developed a new technique to measure the resistance of the active material particles within an agitated fluid. It was discovered that the resistance measured using the technique also correlated to the electrochemical properties of the particles when they were used in conventional lithium-ion batteries – thus the technique used to develop an unusual type of flow battery could also be used to understand and predict the performance of conventional lithium-on batteries used in laptops and cell phones.

This discovery prompted Koenig to pivot his flow battery project toward a development of a new tool for quality control analysis of lithium-ion batteries, in particular as a rapid method to assess the materials during manufacturing.   

Quality control testing in lithium-ion batteries assesses each of the multiple components that go into the final cell individually. Depending on how a battery manufacturing company is integrated, it can source different components of the battery from around the world. Upon arrival, each material requires quality control assurance before its assembly into a battery. Existing analytical tools can test for things like contaminant concentrations, water and carbon content, and particle size distribution in a matter of hours. What comes next in the testing process is where Koenig’s discovery takes shape.

After the individual material components are validated, manufacturers must also verify the charge and discharge performance of the materials assembled into full battery test cells in a pilot run. Today, this pilot testing before final production can take days if not weeks and is very expensive to complete, as it requires the fabrication of cells to test against the batteries in production. Furthermore, because this test evaluates all components, clear determination of where a defect occurs is challenging.

Koenig is working to further the development and understanding of his technique, called “dispersed particle resistance” (DPR) which evaluates only the active materials within lithium-ion batteries. This analysis exposes how materials within the battery react to each other, and can illuminate what causes faulty cells. He is building a prototype device that would collect the same information garnered from the final product testing without the time consuming steps of having to build and test full battery cells.

Adding the DPR assessment to the battery manufacturing quality control standards could eliminate, or reduce the need to fabricate test cells bringing the final product testing down from weeks or days to under 20 minutes. It also has the potential to significantly cut the cumulative loss and energy waste incurred during late-stage quality testing, not to mention brand damaging product recalls on exploding cell phones.

After earning his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, Koenig completed his post-doctorate training at one of the largest Department of Energy battery research groups in the country. He earned his first issued patent on a project during his post-doctorate training, and that experience encouraged him to engage with UVA LVG early on in his tenure as a UVA faculty member.

“Since I submitted my first invention disclosure in 2014, LVG has been a tremendous help in guiding me through the protection of intellectual property,” says Koenig. “Throughout the evolution of my various research projects, LVG has pointed me toward other resources that I wouldn’t have found elsewhere. Now, I’m working with Bob Creeden and his Darden fellows program to explore the possibility of launching a startup company.”

As Koenig continues to refine his working prototype, LVG is protecting both the method and architecture of his DPR assessment technique while also exploring commercialization opportunities in battery and other material manufacturing.