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Zhao’s LAMP Lights a Safer Path for Future Transit

Associate Professor Peng Zhao brought extensive research expertise on combustion, fuel, internal combustion engines, and battery systems to establish his Laboratory of Advanced Mobility and Power (LAMP) at the UT Space Institute (UTSI). He also brought with him a long-standing collaboration with the Ford Motor Company, which helped to both support graduate students and expand LAMP capabilities as the program got underway.

“The goal of LAMP is to solve fundamental-based, application-oriented problems in the frontier of mobility and power systems,” said Zhao. “Right now, the global tendency for decarbonization and electrification has already led to profound, most likely irreversible changes in automotive and ground transportation industries, which also starts to influence the other energy sectors, such as aerospace and manufacturing. We aim to provide sustainable solutions for this evolution through the utilization of low-carbon fuels—such as hydrogen and ammonia—and safer battery systems.”

Zhao’s partnership with Ford began with fuel efficiency research at Oakland University in Michigan.

“I led a Ford-sponsored university research project on the interactions between flames and wall fuel films in engines,” he said. “The spray-wall interaction in advanced direct-injection engines can lead to the formation of a fuel film on the engine wall, which causes early quenching of flame and negatively affects fuel economy and engine emissions.”

His team investigated the interactions within engine conditions and published their studies in leading combustion and engine journals. Zhao continues the collaboration with Ford in his role at UTSI with a shifted interest toward thermal management and safety in batteries and electrical vehicles.

“A major issue in the utilization of current Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries is that many conditions—including overheating, overcharging, short circuit, and collision—can trigger thermal runaway,” said Zhao.

In short, one or more of these triggering situations can cause the battery system to catch fire or even explode.

“Thermal runaway generates a large amount of heat and flammable materials, and can propagate among cells and battery packs, directly threatening lives and properties,” he said. “LAMP has the state-of-the-art facilities to investigate thermal runaway behaviors and mechanisms under well-controlled conditions.”

Peng Zhao (middle) with grad students Liwen Zhang (left) and Ahmad Hadi Bakir (right) at the SAE WCX Conference.
Peng Zhao (middle) with grad students Liwen Zhang (left) and Ahmad Hadi Bakir (right) at the SAE WCX Conference.

One of the main tools used in their study is accelerating rate calorimetry (ARC), used to model the thermal reactions. Zhao and team can also prepare battery component samples by disassembling a battery and then measuring thermal stability and gas generation using simultaneous thermal analysis (STA) and a differential scanning calorimeter (DSC).

“Being part of a state-funded research center for laser applications (CLA) at UTSI, we have access to in-situ X-ray diffraction, scanning electron microscopy and Raman Spectroscopy to analyze battery material crystal structure, morphology, elemental composition, and heterogeneity,” said Zhao. “We also have strong multiphysical modeling and theoretical analysis capabilities to achieve in-depth physical understanding and prediction for thermal runaway.”

The ongoing project with Ford seeks to understand thermal runaway at both cell and sub-cell levels. In single cells, LAMP evaluates the tendency for thermal runaway using different battery cathode materials, state of charge, cell types, and the like. At the sub-cell level, the team investigates thermal stability of different battery components.

“These results will help to understand the thermochemical process of thermal runaway and develop reliable thermochemical models with good predictive capability on its occurrence in the future,” said Zhao.

LAMP investigators have shared the impact of their research through more than 20 peer-reviewed journal articles since 2021—with more than half addressing thermal runaway of Li-ion batteries—in journals such as the International Journal of Heat Mass Transfer, the Journal of Energy Storage, Applied Thermal Engineering, and the Journal of The Electrochemical Society.

The team recently demonstrated that thermal runaway risk varies strongly between battery cells—even new cells from the same vendor that have the same electrochemical performance qualities, like voltage, capacity, and charging/discharging behaviors.

“The insight is that battery safety evaluation and thermal runaway modeling cannot be performed based on a single-cell test,” said Zhao. “Instead, it should be based on the average performance and uncertainty from the statistical thermal runaway behavior of multiple similar cells.”

With this attention to detail, Zhao’s lab offers a significant impact for efficiency and safety as the demand for electrically powered vehicles increases around the world.