National Inventor of the Year Honor Goes to PNNL Energy Storage Expert

A Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientist has been awarded the inaugural Department of Energy Lab Inventor of the Year Award, recognizing his contributions to research and his efforts to bring the benefit of new technologies to society as quickly as possible.

Ji-Guang (Jason) Zhang, whose work has had global impact in the drive toward better electric vehicle batteries, is the first recipient of the new prize. The honor will be awarded each year by the National Academy of Inventors to one person chosen from all employees of the DOE, its 17 national laboratories, and other DOE sites.

The award was created by DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions together with the National Academy of Inventors to recognize and encourage the transition of innovations from DOE to the real world rapidly.

Zhang, who holds 40 patents, accepted the award June 18 at a ceremony at the annual meeting of the NAI in Raleigh, N.C.

Zhang is at the forefront of efforts to produce an EV battery that can pack more energy and last longer. That’s not all. He and colleagues at PNNL and throughout DOE are also working on batteries that are lighter, built of materials that are abundant and readily available, and less expensive to produce.

He is part of a Department of Energy effort known as the Battery 500 Consortium, an initiative led by PNNL where researchers from laboratories, universities and companies work together to produce a better EV battery with electrodes made of lithium metal. In just eight years, the effort has resulted in batteries lasting more than 10 times longer than they did at the beginning of the project under similar conditions.

One line of research includes a major improvement created by Zhang’s team that has brought about some of the best results that researchers have seen in the laboratory. He developed a method to improve the life of batteries by using high concentrations of salt in a battery’s electrolyte, the liquid that makes electrochemical reactions in a battery possible. Zhang found a way to cut the cost of the new technology significantly. By adding molecules that repel expensive lithium salts in the electrolyte, scientists can steer or direct the salts to just the right location—similar to how a farmer uses sheep dogs to direct and manipulate the location of their sheep. This concentrates the salts where they are most effective, cutting down the amount of material needed.

In another effort, the team has developed promising materials to improve a battery component known as the silicon anode to store more energy in the next generation of batteries. A common approach to the anode has been to deposit silicon on top of porous carbon; Zhang’s group has switched the process around by depositing carbon onto porous silicon using a wet chemical approach. This approach has been licensed to Ecellix Inc. for commercial applications.

More broadly, Zhang and technology commercialization manager Allan Tuan developed a program to make it easier for companies to assess new technology developed at PNNL. The program makes newly discovered samples—for instance, a new battery electrolyte—available to companies early on to explore for themselves, at a nominal cost, with a short agreement in hand. This is different than the more common process where a company needs to sign a full licensing agreement before having access to new research.

The new program makes it more likely that the basic research done in PNNL’s laboratories will be explored and possibly commercialized—exactly the type of contribution recognized by today’s award. Zhang’s research has been shared with several companies through this straightforward process. His team uses feedback from industry partners to improve their materials and better address the needs of industry.

“Dr. Zhang stands out for his exceptional contributions to advancing the development of energy storage technology, showcasing his passion and dedication to moving the needle on this and other technological advancements. Dr. Zhang and the larger team at PNNL have also made great strides in supporting technology commercialization—in particular, moving our amazing lab R&D into demonstration, deployment and the marketplace. We celebrate his commitment to excellence in research and technology commercialization and look forward to PNNL’s continued efforts in supporting DOE’s mission to serve the American public,” said Vanessa Z. Chan, DOE chief commercialization officer and director of DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions.

Zhang is part of a cohort of PNNL scientists who have vaulted PNNL into international leadership in battery research. Its scientists are creating new ways to keep batteries working in very hot or cold weather, exploring combinations of materials that could be more effective, and developing new technologies to store renewable energy for the grid. Later this summer, PNNL will formally open the Grid Storage Launchpad, a new facility to create and test technologies to store energy to keep the grid stable and resilient. Zhang and other battery researchers will continue to advance batteries for transportation applications.

Zhang, a Laboratory Fellow at PNNL, has published nearly 400 papers about energy storage and closely related subjects. He has received two R&D 100 awards, a Federal Laboratory Consortium award, and a distinguished achievement award from DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office. A graduate of Dalian University of Technology in China and the University of Kentucky, he joined PNNL in 2007.


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