“I love to explore and find out what things are made of and work out how the properties of molecules can offer useful applications for humans,” he says. “It’s fascinating to use my skills to create new materials that have never existed before and that can make our lives better in so many different ways.”
Polymers could be very strong, which means they are exceedingly useful for making physical materials, such as packaging. However, polymers are incredibly versatile, offering features that can be applied for different types of product development too.
In Dr Jia’s lab, they are developing polymers that can store energy and be used in batteries.
“Traditional batteries use metals such as lithium, cobalt and others, which are increasingly difficult to source through mining, and they present a risk to the environment when they enter landfill after use,” Dr Jia says. “To provide an alternative, we are creating polymers that can replace the metals in batteries.”
Batteries are made of physically separate components, namely cathode and anode. Chemical reactions where electrons flow from the anode to the cathode create electrical power. Nowadays, most batteries are rechargeable. An example is lithium-ion batteries which store electric energy as chemical energy when charging and convert chemical energy to electric energy when discharging.
“We have developed a metal-free battery by creating polymers that can be charged and used as replacements for the metals typically used for the cathode and the anode,” Dr Jia says.
Dr Jia’s metal-free battery is about the size of a USB stick, and it can be created in a coin shape as well. Once the metal-free battery was shown to work, Dr Jia set out to improve how much energy it could store.
“A normal lithium-ion battery has an output voltage of 3.6 to 4 Volt,” says Dr Jia. “While most non-metal batteries could only deliver 1 to 2 Volt, we’ve been able to improve that up to 2.8 Volt in more recent work.”