Betar Gallant, associate professor at MIT and the Class of 1922 Career Development Chair in Mechanical Engineering, grew up in a curious and independent-minded family. Over the years, her mother has worked in various fields, including urban planning and geospatial fields. Although her father had formal training in English, he read a variety of textbooks from cover to cover, taught himself and succeeded in numerous technical fields, including engineering. When Galant was very young, she and her father ran science experiments in the basement.
However, she didn’t say she was drawn to science until she was a teenager. Her father fell ill five years ago and died when Gallant was 16, and while grieving “when I miss him the most”, she begins to examine what fascinates her.
“I started to take a deeper interest in what he’s devoted his life to doing as a way to get closer to him in his absence,” Gallant said. “One summer, I spent a few months browsing through some of what he did and found myself reading a physics textbook. Enough, I was addicted.”
She clearly inherited from her parents a love of finding and understanding solutions independently, which eventually led her to her lifelong career hobby: electrochemistry.
As an undergraduate student at MIT, Gallant worked with Professor Yang Shao-Horn’s research group on an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program that lasted from her sophomore year to her senior thesis. This is Gallant’s first formal exposure to electrochemistry.
“When I met Yang, she quickly showed me how challenging and rich electrochemistry can be, and the way she and her team members talked about research gave me confidence and excitement,” Gallant said. “It was totally eye-opening, and I’m lucky that she’s a (relatively rare) electrochemist in the mechanical engineering department, otherwise I might not have been on this path.”
Gallant earned three degrees from MIT (’08, SM ’10, and PhD ’13). Before joining MIT in 2016, she was a Kavli Nanoscience Institute Prize Postdoctoral Fellow in Caltech’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.
Her passion for electrochemistry is enormous. “Electrons are dazzling – they power much of our daily lives and are the key to a renewable future,” she said, explaining that despite their amazing potential, isolated electrons cannot be on-demand storage and production because “nature doesn’t allow excessive charge imbalances to build up.”
However, electrons can be stored in molecules, bonds and metal ions or non-metallic centers capable of losing and gaining electrons – as long as positive charge transfer occurs to accommodate the electron.
“That’s what chemistry is all about,” Gallant said. “What types of molecules or materials can behave in this way? How can we store as much charge as possible with the lowest possible weight and volume?”
Gallant noted that early battery developers used lithium and ions to build a technology that “arguably shaped our modern world more than any other.
“If you look at some of the earlier papers, the concepts of how lithium-ion batteries or lithium metal anodes work were sketched out by hand—before the field even had the tools to prove all the mechanisms that were inferred to be true did happen— — but even now, these ideas are still proven true!”
“That’s because if you really understand the fundamentals of electrochemistry, you can start to intuitively understand how the system behaves,” Gallant said. Once you can do that, you can really start designing better materials and devices. “
As her father’s daughter, Gallant’s focus is on finding solutions independently.
“Ultimately, it’s a race to have the best mental model,” she said. “A great lab and a lot of money and people to run it is great, but the most valuable tools in the toolbox are solid mental models and a way of thinking about electrochemistry, which is actually very personal and depends on to researchers.”
She said that the primary (non-rechargeable) battery work she and her team are working to commercialize is related to the primary (non-rechargeable) battery work she and her team are working to commercialize, a project from her Gallant Energy and Carbon Shift Lab, had a direct impact. It involves infusing new electrochemically active electrolytes into leading high-energy batteries upon assembly. Replacing traditional electrolytes with new chemistries could reduce the battery’s normally inactive weight and greatly improve energy, Galante said. An important application for such batteries is in medical devices such as pacemakers.
“If you can extend lifespan, you’re talking about a longer time between invasive replacement procedures, and that really affects the quality of life of the patient,” she said.
Gallant’s team is also working on higher-energy rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. The key to the gradual change in energy and driving range is the use of lithium metal anodes instead of graphite. However, lithium metal is highly reactive with all battery electrolytes, and its interface needs to be stabilized in a way that researchers still haven’t been able to solve. Gallant’s team is developing design guidelines for such interfaces and the next-generation electrolytes used to form and maintain them. Applying the technology for that purpose and commercializing it will be “long-term, but I believe this change in lithium anodes will happen, it’s just a matter of time,” Gallant said.
When Gallant founded her lab about six years ago, she and her team began experimenting with electrochemical conversion of the greenhouse gas by introducing carbon dioxide into batteries.She said they realized that batteries were not the best practical technology to reduce carbon dioxide emissions2, But their experiments do open up new avenues for carbon capture and conversion. “This work allowed us to think creatively and we began to realize the enormous potential of manipulating carbon dioxide2 Reactions are carried out by carefully designing the electrochemical environment. This led her team to the idea of electrochemically converting CO2 From the trapped state combined with the trapping sorbent, replace the high energy regeneration step of today’s trapping process and simplify the process.
“Now we’re seeing other researchers working on this as well and taking this idea in exciting directions — it’s a very challenging and very rich topic,” she said.
Gallant’s awards include the MIT Bose Fellowship, the Army Research Office Young Investigator Award, the Scialog Energy Storage and Negative Emissions Science Fellowship, the NSF CAREER Award, the MIT Ruth and Joel Spira Award for Distinguished Teaching, Electrochemical Society (ECS) Battery Division Early Career Award and ECS-Toyota Young Investigator Award.
These days, Galante does some of her best thinking while brainstorming with members of her research team and her husband, who is also an academic. Becoming an MIT professor means she “has a lot to think about,” but she sometimes gets revelations, she said.
“My brain gets overloaded because I can’t think about everything at once; ideas have to queue up! So there’s a lot going on in the background at any one time,” she said. “I don’t know how it works, but sometimes I’ll go for a walk or do something and an idea will break through. Those are fun.”