• Issue 1  |
  • August 2009

Claus Daniel

Dwarf star Anyone who owns a car knows that gasoline is expensive, and that its price and availability depends largely on the volatile Middle East. Though the predictions differ, we all agree that oil will eventually be consumed, and that the emissions from burning gasoline are harmful to the environment. In short, our method for powering our vehicles needs to change.

Claus Daniel and his colleagues are rising to the challenge. Daniel, a Materials Science researcher at ORNL, would like to see current cars replaced with all-electric cars. “All-electric vehicles are much more efficient and do not rely on a single source of energy due to the consumption of electricity – no matter how it was produced. However, they’re not zero emission,” but the emissions are reduced dramatically and are displaced from cities and away from population. This is especially important with the rise of mega-cities, “where you have a concentration of emissions in high density population centers. This technology is not to be reduced to a green idea of saving the earth - it is about sustainability, it’s about livability in those cities, and it’s about energy security for the nation.”

With this goal in mind, Daniel is working on building a better battery. “Problems we are facing now with [current battery] materials [are their] cost, safety, and performance. Performance is directly related to microstructure of the solid state material of electrodes, micro-structural evolution during the charge and discharge, mechanical degradation of those components. The cost is related to the materials processing, so the key is to find ways to process these materials that are affordable and design the microstructure to have them work longer and better.” Currently, Li-ion batteries are used in portable electronics, such as cell phones. These devices typically have a short life and are upgraded or replaced after about two years, so the battery only needs to work that long. In an electric car, however, the battery would probably be about 30% of the car’s value, so it is a much larger investment. “Naturally,” Daniel added, “you cannot just throw that away every other year.”

Improved batteries are desperately needed for efficient stationary storage to enable and increase the use of intermittent renewable sources – after all, “the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow when we turn on our thermostat or lights.” However, the vehicle market is quicker to adapt new technology and cars are sold by the millions, even during the recession. Vehicle batteries also have much more stringent requirements. In addition to having a life-span of 10-15 years, they have to withstand heavy vibrations during driving, and must survive collisions. There are strict volume and weight requirements; and the battery must work within a wide range of conditions – from an Alaskan winter to a Phoenix summer… “sitting for two weeks on the top parking lot at the Phoenix airport in August.” Therefore, the battery development has been mainly driven by vehicle requirements. Once these requirements are met for vehicle batteries, the technology should be easily adaptable to stationary storage.

Daniel speaks three languages fluently, despite having been a self-proclaimed “troubled student when it comes to foreign languages in school.” “I’m from Germany and studied Materials Science in Germany and France. After I finished my Ph. D in Germany, I decided I needed to go to an English speaking country to work on my English language skills;” since most research is communicated in English. He decided to come to the US, and “being in Materials Science, there’s no better place in the US than Oak Ridge National Laboratory.” In 2005, Daniel was awarded the prestigious Wigner fellowship. “Often, in proposals and press releases, we emphasize our great experimental facilities, but I think what is really the treasure of this place are the people. We have a lot of very well known – internationally recognized – experts working at this place, and as a new and young scientist, you can find great mentors and use their experience to develop your own scientific skills. That is very exciting!”
When not working, Daniel enjoys spending time with his wife, Isabell, and their two children: seven year old son Kijan and 5 year old daughter Stina.