• Media Coverage

May 24, 2024

Students Join ULRI in Pursuing a Solution to Thermal Runaway

After six weeks studying battery chemistry and the safety risks associated with lithium-ion batteries, two Chattanooga, Tennessee, students who weren’t planning to attend college applied to local universities to pursue electrical engineering and mechatronics degrees. A third student changed their intended major to engineering, and a fourth student applied for a job working with electric vehicles at a local Volkswagen plant.

Ethan Schubert teaching thermal runaway to his chemistry classIt all started with the Office of Research Experiences & Education’s (OREE) Xplorlabs Educator Fellowship. An inaugural fellow in 2023-2024, Ethan Schubert introduced thermal runaway to his chemistry class at Brainerd High School using Xplorlabs: The Science of Thermal Runaway, which begins by showing students a hoverboard fire. Students described the experience as fun, interesting, and different, and Schubert said they were asking questions and engaged in the content from day one.

"We want to bring current research and current science directly to students and showcase events that happen in their lives. From the first day showing the e-mobility device failing, students were asking questions. These are the questions that really drive instruction and increase engagement,” Schubert said. “I’ve done other ‘cool’ projects, but they are one-offs. This was the first unit where I’ve had continuous engagement all the way through. It was a new level for me as a teacher to see them forward thinking as we explored the unit.”

Ethan Schubert's student A student in the class said they “definitely wouldn’t be totally lost when someone brings up batteries.” And, Schubert overheard a conversation where one student was educating her peer on a counterfeit battery charger and the dangers of thermal runaway that could ensue with continued use.

Schubert helped fan the flames of curiosity he observed by offering his students the opportunity to visit the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) to tour campus and learn more about battery chemistry. The students also met with a faculty member who is researching protective devices for batteries and undergraduate engineering students.

After gaining familiarity with the thermal runaway problem, students were challenged to design their own solution and create a safe battery enclosure prototype. Two students created a prototype that allowed heat to travel — marking one of the first prototypes the Xplorlabs team has seen work successfully on the first attempt.

“This is an issue that the entire scientific community is still working to master, and you have high school students that, in a prototype, were able to do that,” said Megan O’Keeffe, senior education specialist with OREE. “What a great gift we can give these kids — the opportunity to see that they are capable of tackling real-world problems.”

Schubert said the experience gave him hope for how the students might have an impact on their community.

In May, Schubert’s unique collaboration across Xplorlabs, UTC, and his class was featured in local Chattanooga media outlets. Check out the coverage at the links below: