Mechanical engineering student awarded Sloan Minority Graduate Scholarship

Erin Cassidy Hendrick
January 06, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Cody A. Gonzalez, a doctoral student studying mechanical engineering at Penn State, has been awarded an Alfred P. Sloan Minority Graduate Scholarship

The program, which supports efforts to diversify the doctoral degree-holding workforce and help change the demographics of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) faculty in colleges and universities, awarded Gonzalez $10,000 to aid the pursuit of his degree.

A Latino man stands in front of a backdrop saying Institute of Teaching and Mentoring.

Cody A. Gonzalez at the Institute of Teaching and Mentoring conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

IMAGE: Provided

Also a Bunton-Waller fellow, Gonzalez works in the Engineering Design and Optimization Group and is co-advised by Mary Frecker, professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, and Christopher Rahn, the J. Lee Everett Professor and associate dean for innovation. 

Working in the intersection of the research conducted by Frecker, Rahn and Donghai Wang, professor of mechanical and chemical engineering, Gonzalez aims to optimize battery actuators to create self-powered, soft robots, which are flexible and have more human-like mobility. 

“We hope to do this by using silicon, a great battery material that can hold 10 times the charge of graphite,” Gonzalez said.

Theoretically, using silicon in the anodes of a lithium ion battery could dramatically increase the energy density of a battery, such as one used in an electric vehicle. 

“It could drive for 3,000 miles instead of 300 without a recharge,” Gonzalez said. “But there is a catch.”

Currently, pure silicon is a brittle material that undergoes a large volume expansion as it interacts with the lithium. Typically, battery systems are designed to minimize this volume expansion, but Gonzalez and his team are seeking to instead take advantage of it.

By using a soft coating layer that includes silicon, a composite actuator, a component that helps move and control a mechanical system, is formed by essentially allowing the battery to bend its shape.

“With the use of these really small silicon nanoparticles, we can mitigate the damage that usually happens with this movement,” Gonzalez said. “We take advantage of this undesirable swelling and convert that into bending, which keeps the damage to a minimum and accommodates the silicon.”  

When arranged in a network, these enhanced batteries could theoretically be constructed in complex and customized shapes. An added benefit is the connections between the batteries could enable successive charging by providing power to one battery that can charge the next in the sequence. 

“If you have hundreds of these in a row, you now have a smart robot that can be essentially self-powered,” Gonzalez said. “When maybe half the cells are given an initial charge, it redistributes that energy and can also change its shape and the way it exerts force.” 

While pushing the bounds of this technology are important to Gonzalez, he is also passionate about promoting diversity in engineering. He does this partly through his leadership with the Multicultural Engineering Graduate Associate. As a man of Mexican heritage, he is proud to have earned the Sloan scholarship and is excited to help fulfill its mission. 

“In an ideal world, you should see a proportional representation of all ethnicities, genders and all other measures of diversity in STEM and every other field. Having those perspectives helps,” Gonzalez said. “Coming to Penn State with a Latino perspective, it is different than someone else’s, but all of these views are needed to solve engineering problems.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 15, 2021