City College Students Lead the Charge in Battery Innovation — Zeeshan Chaudhry

by Judah Duke

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, City College doctoral students are engineering battery systems that can survive the harsh conditions in outer space.

One of them is Zeeshan Chaudhry who, in the final stages of his six-month research internship, has spent his time in the 3D printing research thrust with a special sub-focus on alkaline cell technology — specifically aqueous, zinc batteries.

His internship is part of the NASA-CCNY Center for Advanced Batteries for Space, a partnership between NASA and City College that sees students from the CCNY Grove School of Engineering and other colleges all over the country placed into research roles at JPL. On completion of his internship, a total of seven PhD students from CCNY in either chemical engineering or chemistry will have interned there, according to the Center’s Director Robert Messinger.

JPL, a NASA laboratory, develops new methods for space exploration and conducts research that benefits both space missions and Earth-based applications. In addition to its work on space travel, JPL also focuses on Earth and planetary sciences.

“One of the prime goals is to actually develop these batteries for secondary energy storage for the electrical grid, because renewables are intermittent,” Chaudhry said in an interview with The RICC.

The intermittency Chaudhry referred to, for example, poses one of the biggest challenges to clean energy.

When consumption for electricity runs low, the power generated by solar panels and wind turbines has nowhere to go, so the electricity is stored to be accessed when demand increases. While pumped storage hydropower is the most common storage system typically used in such cases, the industry is turning to batteries for energy storage as the country continues building out its renewable energy infrastructure.

However, the most common battery cell technology, lithium ion, has one key flaw — it easily overheats. And what happens when it gets too hot?

“They have a tendency to blow up in your face,” Chaudhry said.

That’s one reason aqueous batteries are getting attention for both commercial and industrial applications. However, NASA phased out zinc ion batteries for space applications in the 1980’s, according to Chaudhry, but has since expressed new interest.

In space, extreme cold gives rise to serious issues for aqueous batteries. When the battery’s liquid electrolyte freezes, the ice expands and the cell ruptures, which was one reason for NASA’s phasing out of the battery design. One key problem Chaudhry investigates is finding a suitable low temperature electrolyte, the essential component through which the battery can charge and discharge from the flow of electrical current.

While he enjoys the work, Chaudhry has found more to appreciate in his time at JPL.

“There’s just so many cool, exciting things going on at JPL,” he said. “My favorite thing is interacting with other fellow interns there, because they really do try to bring in people with a very diverse array of skill sets together.”

Chaudhry said JPL is a nexus point for student researchers across the country, and that speaking with interns from different universities facilitates a special diffusion of ideas between different institutions.

He came to the position after doing his own battery research at City funded by ARPA-E, a program from the U.S. Department of Energy modeled after DARPA. He was approached by Messinger whom he met in 2015 — and who is also the primary principal investigator of the center — after enrolling in CCNY’s doctoral program. Chaudhry said he was “very lucky” to have known him at the time.

“The staff at CCNY is like no other place,” he said. “The professors really, really care a lot about the students.”

On his career plans after getting his doctorate this year, Chaudhry says his choices are split. While he loves research and working in collaborative environments, his years spent tutoring at New York University and serving as a teaching assistant and mentor at CCNY draws him to academia.

“I definitely like to do research, but at the same time, I also would like to work at an academic institution, because I have mentored three students at CCNY and I really enjoy the mentoring process,” he said.

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