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Battery Bartender
by Gigi Lin

Mixing: we mix cream and coffee, milk and tea, salt and pepper— but why stop with the mundane? Not quite the novice to the art of mixing, I’ve been stirring, churning, and mechanically agitating eclectic suspensions, slurries, and solutions for the past two summers in the name of photovoltaics and infant vaccines. This summer, I’ve acquired a new nickname—Battery Bartender. As one might guess, I whip up potent anodes, cathodes, current collector, and gel electrolyte inks as part of an internship housed on the Berkeley campus.

To clarify, I am one of two interns at Imprint Energy, a U.C. Berkeley spin-off company that aims to supply industries with entirely printable and rechargeable thin-format batteries. My personal goal as an intern is to produce batches of printable and functional zinc-manganese dioxide batteries by the end of the summer. Achieving this milestone requires that I understand the chemical and physical behavior of the materials as they exist in battery inks and as printed layers, in addition to the operation of associated processing and characterization equipment and consequent data analysis. Although my lab supervisor, Dr. Christine Ho, co-founder and the Berkeley alumna who built the first Imprint Energy battery, has a lab-scale procedure for printing batteries with promising electrochemical performance, we are now trying to scale the process to be compatible with industrial printing processes such as screen printing, the same equipment used to pattern t-shirts, posters, and toys. New protocols are therefore needed to control the quality of large batches of ink and increase the printing throughput. Scale-up? Batch processing? Chemical reactions? Sounds like a job description for a chemical engineer (like myself)!

In these past seven weeks, I’ve familiarized myself with the electrochemistry of our cell, co-authored a protocol for our current battery printing tool, investigated strategies for the purification and characterization of a battery component, ruminated over market applications for our ultra-cool batteries, and much more. Each of these topics consequently engenders its own list of experiments to try, experts to consult, literature to comb, almost analogous to a Choose Your Own Adventures novel.

As one who has always been curious about the "start-up" lifestyle, working at an early stage start-up such as Imprint Energy has been a roller coaster of enlightenment. I have a comprehensive view of how my efforts affect the company and know that my progress contributes to the company’s advancement. I have also been very fortunate to work with a fun and knowledgeable team—two advisors and a talented fellow intern—who support my experience of a world quite different from its academic or industrial counterparts. I would like to think that my time at Imprint Energy is spent on advancing engineering that will transform a novel technology such as thin flexible batteries into applications with widespread uses such as medical devices or intelligent textiles. These are the lofty thoughts that keep me mixing zinc cocktails in the basement of Hearst Mining Building.