Dan Abraham

By Angela HardinFebruary 5, 2012

Daniel Abraham is a leading scientist at Argonne National Laboratory and conducts research in the field of lithium-ion batteries. He leads the effort to identify performance degradation mechanisms in lithium-ion cells to enable development of alternative materials and components that enhance cell performance, calendar life, and safety.

At Argonne, you work on a variety of battery technology projects and are considered an expert in lithium-ion batteries. What led you to this position?

My early research at Argonne was in the area of nuclear technology—we developed metallic waste forms to isolate and contain radioactive components from spent nuclear fuel. My tasks included the synthesis, characterization, and qualification of these alloys for ultimate disposal in a geologic repository. However, as the years passed, it became increasingly evident that our research would not have an immediate impact because of the unresolved debate surrounding the issue of nuclear waste disposal.

This realization, along with the fact that I had already spent several years conducting nuclear-related work, prompted me to seek out new research areas. An opportunity arose in the then new lithium-ion battery research project and I joined the team in 2001. The impact of our work is immediate—our colleagues in industry are very interested in applying our research breakthroughs in the design and manufacturing of their battery products.

What projects are you working on right now? What do you hope they will lead to?

My main project is on developing an understanding of factors that govern the performance and performance loss of lithium-ion battery systems. Almost every cell phone contains a lithium-ion battery; they are also in our cameras, camcorders, and computers. Our goal is to get the batteries into our cars—into the next generation of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. For portable electronic applications, a two- to five-year battery lifetime is sufficient—for vehicular applications, however, a ten- to fifteen-year battery lifetime is required.

I hope that someday all cars will be electric vehicles powered by batteries that can be recharged in our garages or that can be swapped at your local battery swapping stations. I also hope that our work leads to high-energy density batteries that can travel 400 miles on a single charge, and deliver consistently high performance over the vehicle's lifetime.

What do you find most interesting or enjoyable about your work?

I get to learn something new almost every day—that's probably the best part of being a research scientist. I'm often required to reach beyond my formal training in metallurgical engineering and conduct investigations in research areas that include chemistry, physics, and electrochemical engineering.To develop novel battery electrode and electrolyte formulations, I had to gain a better understanding of solid state chemistry and organic chemistry. To determine how batteries work and why they fail, I had to learn about various analytical tools and techniques including various electron microscopy and X-ray spectroscopic techniques. Along the way, I've met some remarkable teachers, who were willing to share their knowledge and expertise. Learning is such an enjoyable experience when you find the right teachers!

What is the biggest challenge in your field?

I believe that developing batteries that are from renewable and sustainable resources is the biggest challenge in my field.

Many lithium-ion battery systems currently under development contain nickel– and cobalt– based oxides that depend on scarce and non-renewable resources.

For example, nickel makes up only 90 parts per million, and cobalt about 20 parts per million, of the earth's crust. We are, therefore, examining technologies for recycling lithium batteries to recover the non-renewable inorganic components and reduce the amount of waste that would otherwise burden our landfills. We are also examining new lithium battery systems that are based on high-performance organic molecules, which can be synthesized following the principles of green chemistry and should be easily recyclable.

Why do you feel your work is important?

The research that my colleagues and I conduct, contributes to the development of pollution-free and sustainable energy technologies that will someday be used to illuminate even the darkest corners of the globe. However, I recognize that many problems confronting humanity—such as air and water pollution, climate change—may not be solved during my lifetime. Therefore, I believe that it's very important to mentor the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Over the course of my career I've worked with several students and scientists both from the US and other nations. And in doing so, I've realized that our lives can have both local and global significance—because every life we touch touches the lives of countless others whom we may never meet.

What projects are you watching (beside your own)?

I'm keenly watching the development and implementation of other forms of energy storage technologies being considered for the "smart" electric grid.

I also have a keen interest in emerging energy production technologies—these include energy from the sun, wind, and tides. Energy and energy storage will remain a challenge in the coming decades, and we will need to develop solutions to these challenges that are both renewable and sustainable.

Can you summarize your research philosophy?

My research philosophy can be summarized in three words: learning, discovering, teaching. When faced with a new challenge, I learn as much as possible about the problem, discover solutions through our research, then teach the answers to all those willing to learn. We teach through presentations, discussions, articles, and reports.

I'm often invited by various educational, industrial, and even non-technical entities to share the knowledge we gain through research. My mission is to expand the boundaries of knowledge that make a worldwide impact. I believe that each of us has something to teach and something to learn. I've learned much, from scientists and non-scientists alike, both at Argonne and elsewhere—and I share my knowledge of energy storage technologies and research methodologies.

Do you have advice for students interested in science and engineering?

I would advise students to seek out mentors who can help verbalize their thoughts and guide them into paths that are both interesting and challenging. I would encourage them to gain practical experience in their areas of interest that build on the knowledge provided by their school coursework.

And I would challenge them to expand their vision and dream of new possibilities—so many things from air travel to cell phones, considered impossible in past centuries are now a routine part of life.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I love to sing—I'm part of two choirs at our church, and have been part of several musicals. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, playing Ultimate Frisbee, and riding my mountain bike around the Argonne forest preserve.

And on vacations that offer extended free time I enjoy traveling around the world, meeting new people, learning new languages, and experiencing new cultures.

What are some lessons that you have learned during your career?

I've learned that people are more important than things—and that the difference we make in the lives of others endures far longer than our successes in research—many of my former students are now doctors, engineers and scientists, and I hope they bear good memories of the times they spent with me.

Also I've learned that it's impossible to please all people at all times—someone's bound to be upset with some of my decisions. And finally, I've learned that it's far more important to be part of the solution than part of the problem!

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