Student Research | Taking charge of battery power

Elias Sebti, a UC Berkeley junior whose research is on developing better batteries
Yiran Chen/Staff

Editor’s note: This is the first of a continuing series highlighting the research being carries out by undergraduates at UC Berkeley across a variety of disciplines. You can find all the stories in the series here.  

In the summer of 2017, Elias Sebti — a third-year student studying material sciences at UC Berkeley — spent about 10 hours per day behind the doors of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, synthesizing and monitoring batteries.

His task was to analyze different compositions of cells in order to determine their stability, durability and capability as a power source, running them through ovens and machines to see whether their qualities matched up to relevant academic literature.

Sebti is a student researcher working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — a campus-affiliated, nationally funded research institution nestled up in the Berkeley Hills that is currently working toward, as one of its projects, a more sustainable lithium-ion battery to sustain the innumerate power needs in our modern society. As of today, he has already clocked hundreds of hours at the lab and has worked there for almost a year, working toward the adoption of cheaper, stronger lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, or EVs.

Despite his current dedication and focus, Sebti first started in research without a clear direction in mind. After his freshman year, he spent a summer working on bioceramics at a research facility in France. The following semester, he applied to nearly a dozen positions, looking for a placement for the summer. By then, his experience in France as well as his successive classes at the university had cemented his desire to work in the renewable energy sector, and when his cold-contact for Berkeley Lab went through, he accepted it without hesitation.

Sebti’s mentor Vincent Battaglia explained that there are plenty of lab opportunities for undergraduates with initiative: “I am not that choosy in about my hiring of undergraduates.  After all, we are taking undergraduates from UC Berkeley — they have already provided the vetting process.“

In his time at the lab, Sebti says that he’s greatly enjoyed the independence he is afforded to conduct his own tests without the same degree of supervision he had experienced at the French lab. “I don’t know a lot of labs would give me the amount of freedom that I have,” he explained.

“I very much enjoy the level of independence. I get real lab experience — actual experimental work experience”

At Berkeley Lab, his work is largely a individual process, with practically no teamwork component and plenty of encouragement for creativity and self-drive. He often relies on the support of graduate students in terms of technical knowledge and data interpretation, but meetings with his mentor are farther in between.

“When I do have scientific data, I’ll put it together in a presentation, talk to him ahead of time, schedule something and go in with him and look at the data and figure something out,” Sebti explained. “Honestly, batteries take longer than you think to cycle. A hundred cycles … take a month or a month and a half — and usually you need a lot of cycles to get a breadth of data.”

While he admits that this particular self-directed approach and rather hands-off mentor-mentee relationship may not be what everyone is looking for, Sebti specifies that he particularly enjoys it for the lab experience. He is not ready to dedicate himself to batteries just yet, he explained, and that plays a role in what he gets out of his experience.

“I’m not ready to do that, I’m not setting my career path to be that way,” Sebti said. “If I had been, I probably want more mentorship.” But he does not downplay the positives of his experience. “I very much enjoy the level of independence. I get real lab experience — actual experimental work experience — and not having somebody hold your hand makes you have to do everything yourself and figure everything out yourself, which I think is ultimately better training than having someone ‘be your mentor,’ ” he explained.

“I like the idea of research, because you’re always creating new knowledge.”

But between thrilling potential breakthroughs and daring self-directives, research can also be incredibly tedious. With a rueful chuckle, Sebti explained that the only progress he made throughout an entire summer of research and data collection was that one specific synthesis simply would not work. “Sometimes that’s how it goes. What I’ve learned from all my time there is that, for any trait of the battery, there is a trade-off.” He explained that you can’t have a boosted power without sacrificing some of the size, efficiency or cost. “You just have to find a good balance,” he added.

“I like the idea of research, because you’re always creating new knowledge,” he pointed out with a grin. “Failure is still the creation of new knowledge.”

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This semester, Sebti is undergoing his own particular trade-offs as he juggles a hefty course load and extracurriculars with continual research work. Unlike the summer, he is only able to make it to the lab two or three times a week, and even then he is never able to stay as long as 10 hours. He has had to adapt his methodology to be more suitable to his schedule.

Instead of analysis, he is building batteries and electrodes from powders, cycling them through charge and recharge in order to test their strength and properties.  “Before, I could just spend all day at the lab and come back at night and work on (CS) 61A.” Now, he’s taking a lot of units, and he has a lot less time to dedicate to the lab. “When I do go in, it’s often to do larger tasks,” he explained. “I go in, produce the electrodes. That takes like a day or two to dry. It’s usually, like, large individual time commitments that then you have to wait a long time to follow up on.” Though he does not foresee that he will pursue this exact field after graduation, for now, he is happy to continue diving into the world of cells and electrodes.

His experience echoes the description of his mentor: “If they have time to work in a lab, they should do so,” wrote Battaglia on the benefits of undergraduate research for students. “There are plenty of professors willing to take on undergraduates. Such an experience will really allow a student a clearer image of what a scientist or engineer does and should be very helpful in deciding their career path come graduation.”

Practical benefits of research aside, perhaps one of the most impactful impressions from the interview was how much Sebti enjoyed his work: “Don’t do research and don’t do science just because someone told you you need to,” he advised. “Do it because it’s something you like to do.”

For those hoping to follow in his footsteps, Sebti encouraged persistence: “Email, or just show up to offices. You just have to talk to people. Don’t be afraid.”

Contact Anna Ho at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anna_j_ho.