By Mike Williams

Rice’s Ming Tang earns early career award to further examine electrodeposition of metals

Rice University materials scientist Ming Tang is one of 85 “outstanding scientists early in their careers” awarded a prestigious grant by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Early Career Research Program.

The agency awarded the competitive grants to researchers within 10 years of earning a Ph.D. who are either tenure-track professors or full-time scientists at DOE’s national laboratories. The grant program, in its ninth year, backs research by scientists in disciplines supported by DOE including advanced scientific computing, biological and environmental sciences, basic energy sciences, fusion energy sciences, high-energy physics and nuclear physics research.

Tang, an assistant professor of materials science and nanoengineering who joined Rice in 2014, will receive a university grant of $150,000 a year for five years. His lab will use the funds to examine morphological instability mechanisms observed during the electrodeposition of active metals.

“This is inspired by the work I did with my collaborator, Hanqing Jiang at Arizona State, in which we looked at dendrite growth in lithium metal batteries,” Tang said.

Dendrites are protrusions of lithium that extend from an anode over time, degrading capacity and risking contact with the battery’s cathode that would inadvertently close the circuit with sometimes explosive results. The problem has limited the development of high-capacity lithium metal batteries that would store far more energy than lithium-ion batteries.

The earlier research showed that the residual stress generated inside the lithium metal during electroplating causes dendrites to protrude out of the initially smooth metal surface. Tang and his collaborators discovered that relieving the stress helps eliminate these dendrites. Now they want to see if their stress-relief theory applies to other metals as well.

“We hypothesize that a group of metals that have relevance to next-generation rechargeable batteries — not only lithium, but also zinc, sodium and potassium — could show similar deposition instabilities because they all have similar characteristics in terms of large atomic mobility and high reactivity with electrolytes,” Tang said. “This project will focus on zinc electroplating to test the hypothesis and get a better understanding of how the instability develops during electroplating for this group of metals.”

Tang said that because electrodeposition is common in industry, discoveries about its fundamental properties could have wide influence.

“The big picture is not only about batteries, because electrodeposition is a general process,” he said.