Hurry up and innovate: S&T event challenges students to improve energy storage

Posted by
On June 12, 2024

micro grand challenge

Noah Johnson won first place in S&T’s first Grand Micro Challenge in April. He proposed sodium rather than lithium-ion batteries to store wind and solar power. Photo by Sam Wright, Missouri S&T.

Noah Johnson, a rising sophomore in mechanical engineering from Washington, Illinois, won first place in S&T’s first Micro Grand Challenge in late April. The challenge gave students just a few hours on a Sunday afternoon to propose a way of storing the energy generated by sun and wind without relying on lithium-ion batteries, which are widely used and almost impossible to recycle, or to propose new methods of developing and recycling lithium batteries.

Johnson is a Kummer Vanguard Scholar, a program supported by the $300 million gift June and Fred Kummer made to Missouri S&T in 2020. His solution is to use sodium instead of lithium-ion batteries. Sodium batteries check nearly all the environmental boxes, but they don’t store as much energy.  

That shortcoming is what Johnson will address through research in the fall, working under the supervision of Dr. Shelley Minteer, director of the Kummer Institute Center for Resource Sustainability and professor of chemistry. Minteer organized the challenge in partnership with Kummer Student Programs and the Opportunities for Undergraduate Research Experiences (OURE) program.

“The problem is that the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow,” says Minteer, who kicked off the challenge with a brief presentation of the issues associated with energy storage. Then participants teamed up with graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the center to work on a solution, which they presented to a  panel of three judges – a dean, a member of the faculty and a lay person.

Johnson says the challenge appealed to him because it combines two of his favorite things: mechanical engineering and research. He considers research an unparalleled opportunity to be on the cutting edge of technology. As for mechanical engineering, he credits his uncle with igniting the engineering spark.

“Engineering is a practical career, but it gives you the opportunity to be creative in a way that benefits everyone,” he says.

And there’s movement.

“Mechanical engineering is about things that move,” says Johnson, who is chief engineer elect of the Human Powered Vehicle Design Team. “I think things that move are cooler than things that don’t.”

He says it took about 15 minutes to get comfortable with how little time he had to come up with a compelling idea for addressing what he considers a major component of a significant engineering challenge.

“You have to go into something like this open to learning quickly,” Johnson says. “I was hit with a feeling that I had no idea what I was doing, but I decided the time to learn is now. I got focused on batteries, fuel cell technology, electricity and chemical reactions.”

Minteer says the Micro Grand Challenge marks the beginning of what she hopes becomes a tradition of getting faculty and students involved not only in the center’s activities but in articulating its strategy as well.

“We want to take advantage of the opportunity to leverage our students’ creativity as we think about the future of the Center for Resource Sustainability,” she says. “We are taking a pretty holistic approach to sustainability, and we plan to do much more in areas like wastewater treatment, environmental remediation and carbon capture.”

About Missouri University of Science and Technology

Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) is a STEM-focused research university of over 7,000 students located in Rolla, Missouri. Part of the four-campus University of Missouri System, Missouri S&T offers over 100 degrees in 40 areas of study and is among the nation’s top public universities for salary impact, according to the Wall Street Journal. For more information about Missouri S&T, visit www.mst.edu































Noah Johnson, a rising sophomore in mechanical engineering
from Washington, Illinois, won first place in S&T’s first Grand Micro
Challenge in late April. The challenge gave students just a few hours on a
Sunday afternoon to propose a way of storing the energy generated by sun and
wind without relying on lithium-ion batteries, which are widely used and almost
impossible to recycle, or to propose new methods of developing and recycling lithium
batteries.

Johnson is a Kummer Vanguard Scholar,
a program supported by the $300
million gift
June and Fred Kummer made to Missouri S&T in 2020. His
solution is to use sodium instead of lithium-ion batteries. Sodium batteries
check nearly all the environmental boxes, but they don’t store as much energy.  

That shortcoming is what Johnson will address through research
in the fall, working under the supervision of Dr.
Shelley Minteer
, director of the Kummer Institute Center for Resource
Sustainability and professor of chemistry. Minteer organized the challenge in
partnership with Kummer Student Programs and
the Opportunities for
Undergraduate Research Experiences
(OURE) program.

“The problem is that the sun doesn’t always shine, and the
wind doesn’t always blow,” says Minteer, who kicked off the challenge with a
brief presentation of the issues associated with energy storage. Then participants
teamed up with graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the center to
work on a solution, which they presented to a  panel of three judges – a dean, a member of
the faculty and a lay person.

Johnson says the challenge appealed to him because it
combines two of his favorite things: mechanical engineering and research. He
considers research an unparalleled opportunity to be on the cutting edge of
technology. As for mechanical engineering, he credits his uncle with igniting
the engineering spark.

“Engineering is a practical career, but it gives you the
opportunity to be creative in a way that benefits everyone,” he says.

And there’s movement.

“Mechanical engineering is about things that move,” says Johnson,
who is chief engineer elect of the Human Powered Vehicle Design Team. “I think
things that move are cooler than things that don’t.”

He says it took about 15 minutes to get comfortable with how
little time he had to come up with a compelling idea for addressing what he
considers a major component of a significant engineering challenge.

“You have to go into something like this open to learning
quickly,” Johnson says. “I was hit with a feeling that I had no idea what I was
doing, but I decided the time to learn is now. I got focused on batteries, fuel
cell technology, electricity and chemical reactions.”

Minteer says the Grand Micro Challenge marks the beginning
of what she hopes becomes a tradition of getting faculty and students involved
not only in the center’s activities but in articulating its strategy as well.

“We want to take advantage of the opportunity to leverage
our students’ creativity as we think about the future of the Center for
Resource Sustainability,” she says. “We are taking a pretty holistic approach
to sustainability, and we plan to do much more in areas like wastewater
treatment, environmental remediation and carbon capture.”

About Missouri University of Science and Technology

Missouri University of
Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) is a STEM-focused research university
of over 7,000 students located in Rolla, Missouri. Part of the four-campus
University of Missouri System, Missouri S&T offers over 100 degrees in 40
areas of study and is among the nation’s top public universities for salary
impact, according to the Wall Street Journal. For more information about
Missouri S&T, visit
www.mst.edu. 

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