Reginald Penner ’83 Helps Lead a Nanowire Discovery

Posted on May 10th, 2016 by

UCI chemist Reginald Penner, shown, and doctoral student Mya Le Thai have developed a nanowire-based battery technology that allows lithium ion batteries to be recharged hundreds of thousands of times. Steve Zylius/UCI

University of California-Irvine chemist and Gustavus alum Reginald Penner with UCI doctoral student Mya Le Thai. Steve Zylius/UCI

A California-based research group led by Reginald Penner ’83 has made an important discovery in nanowire technology. It could revolutionize our battery-powered devices.

Nanowires are highly conductive, have a large surface area, and yet they are thinner than a human hair and very fragile. Scientists around the world have been trying to figure out how to use nanowires in batteries for years.

Penner, who has been an analytical chemist and professor at University of California-Irvine for 26 years, leads a group of doctoral and post-doctoral electrochemists that researches nanowire technology. One of his doctoral students, Mya Le Thai, discovered that with a manganese dioxide shell and a gel-based coating, nanowires can work exceptionally well in batteries. “Normal batteries start to lose capacity at 5,000 [charge-recharge] cycles,” Penner said. But in Le Thai’s experiment, there was no reduced capacity at 40,000, 80,000, or even more cycles. Said Penner, “She turned off the experiment before any of the devices ever failed.”

This discovery is disruptive technology that could transform the way we think about batteries. “It means batteries can be a lot smaller than they are now,” Penner said. And rechargeable ones—like the ones in your laptop and smartphone—might never fail. “Every time you charge and discharge rechargeable batteries, they hold a little less charge. What we have discovered with nanowires is that there’s a way to stop this from happening completely.” Imagine a world with a flashlight that outlives you, and a smartphone with a battery that never fails you.

Batteries aren’t the only nanowire application Penner’s research group is exploring. The group is also working on using nanowires to create low-cost, extremely fast sensors for fuel cell cars, which run on highly explosive hydrogen. And the group is working on a sensor that detects bladder cancer in urine. Bladder cancer has a 60 percent recurrence rate and requires routine testing.

A chemistry and biology major at Gustavus, Penner went on to complete a doctorate at Texas A&M and post-doctoral work at California Institute of Technology. He credits Gustavus professor emeritus Larry Potts for teaching him about chemistry and professorship. “He was a huge influence on me,” Penner said. So was his Gustavus liberal arts education, which he credits with teaching him to write—“that’s all I do now,” he said. And he has gratitude for his small-college experience, which gave him the independence to do real experiments in a real lab. “I didn’t have to compete with grad students,” Penner said. “With professors’ encouragement, I had the chance to get excited about science.”


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