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WVU professor to conduct battery-powered air travel research in partnership with NASA

Professor on one-year funded sabbatical with NASA Ames Research Center   

By Brittany Furbee, Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — David Mebane, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, has been awarded a one-year, funded sabbatical from the NASA Ames Research Center to develop a theoretical framework and models of electrochemical devices like batteries and fuel cells using a combination of science-based models and machine learning. NASA has provided Mebane with funding that will allow him to step away from some of his teaching duties for the 2023-2024 academic year and focus on the research project.  

David Mebane

“The Computational Materials Group at NASA-Ames is a leader in first principles simulation of materials, and this can help fill a critical need in the development of a multi-scale theory of solid-state electrochemical interfaces,” said Mebane. “My scientific goal is the establishment of a theoretical framework for the behavior of electrochemical interfaces. This new collaboration is an excellent first step towards our shared goal of realizing a data-driven modeling framework.”  

NASA is interested in producing battery powered aviation to reduce the carbon footprint of flying. Currently, air travel is the most carbon-intensive way to travel.  

According to climate scientists at the University of Oxford, airplanes emit around 100 times more CO2 per hour than a shared bus or train ride, and the emissions of global aviation are around 1 billion tons of CO2 per year.  

For aviation companies to decarbonize, they must produce a reliable battery solution for air travel.  

“Powering aviation via battery power can benefit from stable solid-state lithium-ion batteries,” said Mebane. “Battery safety and power density are both much more important for aviation than for automobiles.”  

One of the main ways that fires can start in battery operated vehicles is that the liquid electrolyte found inside the battery can catch fire, which is why eliminating liquids is such a hot area of research, according to Mebane.  

To make solid-state batteries practical, researchers must discover solid-state electrolytes that can conduct lithium well. Mebane’s model for solid-state electrochemical interfaces can facilitate this search.  

“In connecting our interface models to theoretical first principles, we can plausibly search for materials that are compatible with each other and would make for a safe, effective battery for aviation,” said Mebane.  

In addition to material selection the models can be used to design and manage devices.  

“The models, which are sometimes called digital twins because they mimic the behavior of a real device or process, will be created using a combination of science and machine learning,” explained Mebane. “My main role will be connecting the scales by incorporating calculations involving atoms, ions and electrons with measurements on electrochemical cells in an overall predictive model. Our work will produce highly accurate models of devices and processes that will be easy for engineers to use in product design and deployment.”  

Mebane’s models of battery systems will be used by NASA to predict potential battery failure and will help researchers identify ways to avoid battery failure once they are connected to a device. 

“This new relationship with a world-class theory group enables the sort of progress toward my scientific goals that I have been seeking for a long time,” said Mebane. “We expect that additional joint research projects will arise from this sabbatical collaboration and that our work together will grow and develop further over time.”  

Mebane will travel to the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California at least once during his sabbatical to collaborate with NASA researchers in person. The remainder of his work will be conducted remotely in Morgantown. 



Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit

For more information on news and events in the West Virginia University Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, contact our Marketing and Communications office:

Email: [email protected]
Phone: 304-293-4135

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