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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

MERF tips the scale toward efficient materials testing

Argonne’s Materials Engineering Research Facility (MERF) revolutionizes the scaling process for new materials in energy industries.

Discovering new materials that can make batteries last longer or fuel cells more efficient could be game-changing — if only we could figure out how to scale them up into industrial commodities more efficiently. 

Scaling up the manufacturing of new materials for energy storage and catalysis is notoriously difficult but unquestionably vital to improving performance and reducing costs. Energy industries, in particular, depend on the process to generate new advanced materials at quantities sufficient to test and validate their efficacy.  

Yet, scale-up is difficult because of its cost and complexity; making larger quantities of advanced materials, such as catalysts or nanomaterials, often requires many processing steps that — if not carefully controlled — could alter the chemical and physical properties of the product, rendering them useless.  

These challenges have left many in industry reluctant or unable to invest in risky and costly scale-up processes for new materials. To overcome this dilemma, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory has established its Materials Engineering Research Facility (MERF), a truly collaborative and pioneering endeavor built with funds from DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Vehicle Technologies Office (VTO). 

The facility is aimed at developing cost-effective manufacturing processes to scale up promising new materials. It allows industry to access recently developed, best-performing advanced materials. 

Employing cutting-edge instruments and laboratories, MERF researchers develop scalable processes and produce kilogram-quantities of various advanced materials. They share the samples they produce with industry and academia for evaluation and validation and use them to advance basic research. These activities support Argonne’s Manufacturing Science and Engineering Initiative, a program to put America’s manufacturing sector — which fuels over 11 percent of U.S. gross domestic product — in a forefront of innovation and make it more competitive. 

Scaling battery materials 

Kris Pupek, group leader for process R&D and scale-up in Argonne’s Applied Materials division, leads many of the activities at the MERF. He and fellow researchers have successfully scaled dozens of materials, with a focus on battery materials for electrical vehicles and catalysts for fuel cells. 

Whoever makes battery materials or has an interest in developing more efficient batteries should be interested in what we’re doing,” Pupek said. Our goal is to lower the cost of producing materials without compromising quality and performance because this is what industrial manufacturing requires.” 

One way in which MERF researchers source new battery materials in need of scaling is by working closely with Argonne’s discovery scientists. Inside Argonne’s discovery laboratories, researchers prowl for new materials with desirable properties. Once such material is found, they look to MERF researchers to help them scale it up for intensive studies. 

The discovery laboratory’s function is to make as many new materials as possible in the least amount of time. The techniques it uses are very efficient for small-scale production but cannot be used to make large quantities of materials, which is why MERF is needed,” Pupek said. The researchers in Argonne’s and other discovery laboratories turn to us to develop processes for making promising materials in quantities sufficient for full scale industrial validation and prototyping.” 

Our goal is to lower cost without compromising quality because this is what industrial manufacturing requires.”  Kris Pupek, group leader for process R&D and scale-up in Argonne’s Applied Materials Division 

Scaling catalysts for fuel cells 

Along with battery materials, Argonne is a leader in designing and developing techniques to scale novel catalyst materials. Among the materials researchers are working to scale are platinum-free catalysts for polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells. 

At this time, PEM fuel cells are the frontrunner among fuel cell types for powering vehicles and some stationary power systems, but the platinum-based catalysts they currently employ make them costly and less durable over time.  

Recognizing this challenge, multidisciplinary teams at Argonne are working together with Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to come up with solutions. Through the Electrocatalysis Consortium (ElectroCat), which Argonne and Los Alamos co-lead, researchers are identifying and scaling high-performance, platinum-free alternatives. 

Using Argonne’s High-Throughput Research Lab, ElectroCat scientists have synthesized dozens of promising catalytic materials and tested both their catalytic activity and performance in a fuel cell environment. The most promising are delivered to the MERF, which develops the processes to take the materials from gram- to kilogram-sized quantities for evaluation at the device level. 

Evaluating new manufacturing technologies  

Existing techniques are not always adequate to manufacture advanced materials at large scales. In these instances, new approaches are needed. So Pupek and other researchers at the MERF invest in developing, evaluating and applying new manufacturing technologies.  

One new technique the MERF researchers are evaluating is flame spray pyrolysis (FSP), a type of aerosol synthesis that exploits the science of combustion and the properties of materials to engineer particles with a specific set of desired characteristics.  

Until now, techniques for FSP have been limited to the production of simple compounds. But MERF researchers have come up with a new approach that simplifies the manufacture of nanomaterials with advanced architecture at high volumes, which could widen industry applications for FSP

Argonne’s FSP technology is equipped with controls and diagnostic tools to make it easier for manufacturers to develop more complex materials and for researchers to understand the fundamental processes taking place. These tools enable users to monitor various features that shape the chemical and physical properties of resulting materials. They also help us understand the relationship between process parameters and the desired outcomes.  

These tools give us greater visibility into the process. The more visibility we have, the greater opportunity we have to optimize the product in real time,” said Joe Libera, a principal materials scientist who leads Argonne’s FSP program. 

The laboratory’s FSP technology is being tested on catalysts and battery materials, including the solid electrolyte LLZO, as well as battery cathode active materials, such as lithium manganese oxide and lithium manganese niobium oxide. 

Argonne also is evaluating the continuous flow reactor (CFR), a technique that can dramatically improve the consistency and efficiency of manufacturing fine chemicals and nanomaterials. In CFR processing, reactions that lead to material production all take place within a single microfluidic, or low volume, reactor, regardless of the production scale. This eliminates variation between batches. Fully implemented, the technology could alleviate some of the struggles industries face when producing fine materials and nanomaterials at commercial scales. 

Integrating Argonne Capabilities 

Part of the process of evaluating manufacturing techniques like CFR and FSP is developing ways to optimize their performance. To do this, researchers at the MERF integrate their capabilities with those of others at the laboratory.  

Along with the MERF, researchers tap into Argonne’s world-class on-site diagnostics, data analysis and supercomputing resources, and well as laboratory experts in combustion engineering and aerosol and materials sciences, to make catalysts and other materials in more efficient and scalable ways. 

The DOE Office of Science User Facilities at Argonne are among the value-added resources to which researchers can also gain access through a competitive application process based on peer review. The high-energy X-ray beams at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source, for example, can help researchers visualize materials at fine time and resolution scales to understand what happens during material production. Meanwhile the high-performance computing resources at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility allow MERF researchers to model and simulate manufacturing processes for further optimization. 

Researchers at Argonne’s MERF are leveraging these facilities and the energy storage expertise that resides at the laboratory to make the notoriously difficult process of scaling up new materials production for energy storage and catalysis a reality. 

Research at the facility is funded, in part, by several offices within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy,  including the Vehicle Technologies Office, the Building Technologies Office, the Bioenergy Technologies Office and the Fuel Cell Technologies Office.   

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy supports early-stage research and development of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies to strengthen U.S. economic growth, energy security, and environmental quality.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.