October 25, 2001
Brookhaven Scientist Wins 2002 Design & Engineering Award
UPTON, NY — James Reilly, a retired chemist who continues to participate in ground-breaking research at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, has been awarded a 2002 Design & Engineering Award by Popular Mechanics magazine.
The awards, given annually, honor innovation, invention, design, and engineering in five fields covered by the magazine. Reilly was cited in the science category for his work on developing a new metal alloy that promises to improve the performance of rechargeable batteries. He and sixteen other winners will be featured in the December issue of the magazine.
Said Popular Mechanics Editor-in-Chief Joe Oldham, “Our Design & Engineering Award is the highest honor we can bestow. And our editors were particularly stingy this year, in that only seventeen recipients were chosen. The winners are truly the best of the best.”
“This recognition by Popular Mechanics is particularly gratifying
at this point in my life,” said Reilly, “since I retired shortly after
this work was completed. I wish to note the essential contributions of
my co-workers, John Johnson, Gordana Adzic, Tom Vogt, and Jim McBreen,
without whom this work would not have been possible. I also thank the
administration of Brookhaven National Laboratory for offering me a
Guest Scientist Appointment after my formal retirement, which permits
me to continue to be active in this field.”
Reilly and his team were recently awarded a U.S. patent for their work on the new alloy. (See more on the patent.)
When used as an electrode in nickel/metal hydride (Ni/MHx) batteries — the most popular rechargeables — the alloy has a high capacity for storing charge, a long-lasting ability to be charged and recharged, and good resistance to corrosion. Furthermore, the alloy contains no cobalt, an expensive metal found in many Ni/MHx batteries, and no cadmium, a toxic metal found in nickel-cadmium rechargeables. Composed of lanthanum, nickel, and tin, “this new alloy is inexpensive and relatively environmentally benign,” Reilly said.
The alloy is based on a classic formula used for Ni/MHx batteries, which consists of a cube-like lattice with lanthanum atoms on the corners and nickel on the inside. The electrode works by storing up hydrogen atoms in the spaces between the atoms during charging, and releasing them into the electrolyte during discharge.
But the added hydrogen atoms have an adverse effect: They cause the crystal lattice to expand, and then contract as the battery discharges. “This expansion and contraction is repeated in each charge/discharge cycle of the battery,” said Reilly, “which pulverizes the alloy into small particles that are more susceptible to corrosion. That’s why batteries don’t recharge an infinite number of times. Eventually corrosion takes over.”
Scientists have found that using a mixture of metals, including cobalt, in place of nickel helps the electrode resist this tendency to break apart and corrode. But even small amounts of cobalt can drive up the cost of batteries considerably. So scientists have been trying to understand the role cobalt plays — and find ways to replace it.
That’s what the Brookhaven scientists were doing when they were investigating several relatively simple, cobalt-free alloys. They found a combination of lanthanum, nickel, and tin with a very high storage capacity that didn’t decay over many charge/discharge cycles.
“This new electrode material arose out of our long-standing interest in hydrogen-metal interactions. Such interactions can be exploited to produce not only energy-storage media but also improved magnetic alloys, catalysts, and nanoscale materials. It is a fascinating research area and one in which I hope to continue to contribute,” Reilly said.
This work was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, which supports basic research in a variety of scientific fields.
The U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies. Brookhaven also builds and operates major facilities available to university, industrial, and government scientists. The Laboratory is managed by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited liability company founded by Stony Brook University and Battelle, a nonprofit applied science and technology organization.