Materials science graduate student tackles safer batteries in trip to Japan

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Preeya Kuray dreams of one day creating a better biocompatible battery to be used in medical devices inserted into the human body. For now, she’d settle for making your phone a little more safe.

That’s what the materials science and engineering doctoral candidate is doing through research in Japan and at Penn State.

Kuray spent the summer in Japan at Osaka University, with help from professor Tadashi Inoue, researching methods for improving and stabilizing the ionic liquid found in the batteries of most electronic devices. Specifically, she is converting the liquid to a flexible solid, or polymer. These polymerized ionic liquid structures (PILS) aren’t prone to leakage, which can result in fire, and thus are much more stable. However, their conductivity, or ability to transfer electricity, is low.

Kuray is trying to improve that conductivity while retaining that stability.

“An ionic liquid consists of a cation and a counter anion,” Kuray said. “The counter anion is in charge of the conductivity. The smaller the counter anion, the higher the conductivity because it’s easier for smaller ions to move.”

Kuray had been eying a unique research opportunity funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), called the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes program, since she was an undergraduate at Rutgers. And, after spending a year teaching English in Japan before beginning her doctoral program at Penn State, Kuray couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return.

In Japan, Kuray synthesized PILS using a carbon backbone to hold the liquid in place. She returned to Penn State with 10 new samples — six that she created — that she plans to chart how changing the size of the counter anion changes conductivity, using dielectric spectroscopy with help from her adviser, James Runt, professor of polymer science.

Hooked on materials

As a first-year college student, Kuray knew she wanted to major in engineering. The specific area, however, was wide open. But a visit to a materials science showcase at Rutgers solidified her career path.

“I saw all of the different research projects and the potential that materials science has on bettering both society and humanity and that made me more excited than I had felt for any other branch of science and engineering,” said Kuray, who spent her time at Rutgers working with Laura Fabris, who is known for her research on using gold nanoparticles to detect cancer cells.

The broad-reaching impact of materials science excites Kuray, but she said she’s most driven by research related to medical applications. She’s hoping to use her research experiences at Penn State to develop medical devices, such as biocompatible internal batteries.

Recently, she’s also taken an interest in public policy and leadership.

“The original motivation for pursuing graduate school was to become involved in university administration and promote programs like the one I did in Japan for other engineering students,” Kuray said. “I think it’s one of the best things students can do toward their professional career.”

No matter the way her career turns, Kuray knows it will have impact. That’s what drew her to the field in the first place.

“It’s the breadth of the research and the impact it can have on people’s lives,” Kuray said. “I’m amazed at the different applications of materials science and the ways that these areas, if pursued, have the potential to better society. That’s what drew me in and has inspired me to pursue a Ph.D.”

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Last Updated November 17, 2017