Energy is a significant component of the global economy and drives the technological advances of our society. Materials innovation, in part, plays a critical role in meeting the increasing energy demands. High performance electronics devices were enabled through discovery of the transistor. In turn, the discovery of intercalation materials led to the commercialization of lithium-ion batteries – now making electronic devices readily portable and ubiquitous in society. Such game-changing materials discoveries and continued engineering are paramount to address the energy needs. At the IME, the Patel Group will focus on addressing energy related challenges that will lead to a more sustainable, cleaner and safer energy technologies.
The Patel Group focuses on functional polymers – soft materials that have material processing properties of traditional polymers (i.e. “plastics”), but with the ability to transport neutral molecules, ions, or electrons. Moreover, functional polymers have the ability to be redox-active, optically-active, and responsive to external stimuli such as temperature. Therefore, the properties of functional polymers can be tuned through molecular design to fit the needs of a wide-array of applications. With this versatility, functional polymers can be leveraged to regulate charge transport in electrochemical devices, convert solar energy to electricity, convert thermal energy to electricity, and purify water. Beyond energy applications, these materials can be applied to biomedical systems such as controlled drug release or the development of degradable implantable electronic devices. While the current focus of the group is on batteries and thermoelectrics (devices that interconvert heat and electricity), we will continue to look for interesting and innovative applications areas that allow us to leverage the diverse nature of functional polymers.
The Patel Group has a strong expertise in the characterization of materials from the molecular- to macroscopic-scale. We combine complementary experimental scattering, spectroscopy and microscopy techniques with electrical and electrochemical measurements to reveal critical structure and property relationships of functional polymers. To truly understand the performance within devices, we look to implement in-situ, in-operando and non-invasive characterization techniques. We pay particular attention to interfacial effects, which frequently limits the performance of functional polymers. Experiments alone will not reveal the critical scientific underpinnings. Accordingly, a mission of the research group will be to establish collaborations with theory and simulation groups in order to complement our experimental expertise. In turn, we can develop new materials with our synthetic collaborators to fully exploit the innovations of functional polymeric materials for energy conversion and storage.