Student research profile: Building a better battery with Nando Felten

Sunday, October 7, 2018 - 4:54pm

Engineering Sophomore Nando Felten works with lithium rods in a glove box in the Sakamoto Lab at GG Brown Friday. Felten's research focuses on the use of lithium in solid-state batteries.

Engineering Sophomore Nando Felten works with lithium rods in a glove box in the Sakamoto Lab at GG Brown Friday. Felten's research focuses on the use of lithium in solid-state batteries. Buy this photo
Max Kuang/Daily

Batteries have always fascinated LSA junior Nando Felten. Felten, who is from Detroit but spent most of his life living in Germany, was amazed by the universal use of batteries. But what surprised Felton even more was that the current model for the battery has remained largely unchanged for the last several decades.

Now, a research assistant in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program with plans to transfer to the College of Engineering, Felten is on a mission to build a better battery model.

“Batteries can be found all around the world,” Felten said. “Batteries today continue to be one of the most fundamental pieces of almost all electric power or electric equipment or devices today. Batteries today, there hasn’t really been a revolutionary change.”

Felten is one of many undergraduate LSA students participating in UROP who are given the opportunity to assist partner with University of Michigan researchers. Felten was paired with Rackham student Alvaro Masias to help with Masias’ research on solid state batteries.

Masias first met Felten in an interview for his UROP project in 2017. Masias said during the interview, Felten discussed his dream to start his own car company in the future and even brought Masias automotive interior design drawings, sparking Masias’ interest.

“Despite having worked together closely for a year I am still surprised when he refers to his mentor and professor as sir,” Masias said. “Given his family’s military background I know that this is a sign of respect and despite how often he says it, it is still a surprising and charming window into his character.”

In his research, Felten assists Masias with collecting lithium metals from various companies and testing the metals’ the mechanical properties, such as the stress and strain. Felten explained the purpose of this research is to build a battery that performs better than traditional lithium-ion batteries, the electronics industry’s current standard.

“The historical average rate of improvement for lithium-ion batteries, which is the current state of art chemistry in a battery, has been about 8 percent per year,” Felten said. “Solid state batteries could achieve 50 to 100 percent improvement in energy density by enabling the use of lithium metal. If we find out the property of this metal we will be able to, in theory, use it in a battery that can achieve a 50 to 100 percent more improvement in energy.”

The theory on which the research project focuses is whether solid state batteries, which use solid materials like the lithium metals Felten tests, can be used as a substitute for and outperform the current batteries used today.

“The goal of this is to make a battery which is in theory half of the weight and half of the size but can perform 100 percent better,” Felten said. “It is almost subconscious — every single day, I use something that’s battery-powered, be it my cell phone or my laptop or even I have these LED lights in my apartment. It got me thinking, I use (batteries) everyday so how I can learn more about it? Being in this lab, my mentor just poured knowledge on to me that I couldn’t really learn anywhere else. Just getting that knowledge, just drew me into the lab more and more, every single day.”

At the end of the year, Masias plans to have Felten present a poster on his research at the Electrochemical Society Biannual meeting. 

“Participating in an external conference will hopefully allow Nando the chance to share his research results directly with non-UM researchers and expose him to a broader research community,” Masias said.

Just this month, the Journal of Materials Science accepted a scientific paper of which Felton was a secondary author about the mechanical properties of lithium metals. Felten hopes to go to graduate school after his undergraduate studies and have a career in the engineering industry.

Mechanical Engineering professor Jeff Sakamoto, Felten’s UROP professor, said the budding engineer sees the “bigger picture” and the potential for his research now to help improve a mechanism that nearly everyone uses, but does not think about.

“I think Nando will make an excellent graduate student or engineer in the workforce,” Sakamoto said. “He likes working on batteries and seeing the impact they will have on society.”