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Q&A with Kathy Liu

The Utah teen is one of 20 nationwide named a Davidson Fellow.

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YUE LIN
  • Yue Lin

Her last name might be short, but Kathy Liu's award-winning science project is a mouthful: "Nature-Based Solid Polymer Electrolytes for Improved Safety, Sustainability and Efficiency in High-Performance Rechargeable Batteries." Kathy is one of 20 teens nationwide to be named a Davidson Fellow, which comes with a $10,000 prize. We chatted with the 18-year-old about her passion.

When did the science bug bite you?
My elementary school teachers made science so interesting and engaging, and I've loved it since. Science education and support from teachers, peers and organizations makes all the difference; increasing access, education and opportunities for students from all backgrounds is absolutely necessary to allow everyone the chance to get involved and find their own passions.

What about batteries caught your interest?
Batteries are critical to so many technologies that almost everyone uses every day, and are key to enabling next generations of mobile devices and transportation. Yet, battery performance has progressed much more slowly than those attained by other technologies.I was intrigued by how much of a bottleneck batteries pose to future innovations.

Did you invent a new type of battery? What have you discovered?
I innovated a new component for a relatively new type of battery: the lithium sulfur battery. I was able to develop a solid paste to replace the conventionally liquid electrolytes in batteries.

You say your battery is nature-based. How so?
The foundation for my paste is none other than sugar, a naturally occurring compound that is both cheap and widely available.

Does it pack as much punch as a conventional rechargeable?
The batteries I developed have a higher energy density than those on the market—so they pack more energy per unit of material.

What are its advantages?
One major advantage is safety: Liquid electrolytes are the main cause for the high flammability of modern commercial batteries, as we've seen in cell phone and airplane fires. Replacing the liquids with solids drastically improves battery safety. Additionally, the solid electrolyte simplifies and optimizes battery design and efficiency, allowing for more lightweight, long-lasting power. Switching out the solids may also pave the road to flexible batteries for wearable electronics.

Do you have any prediction about the future electric vehicles?
Electric vehicles are achieving increasingly higher driving ranges per charge, and I think they're going to improve significantly in terms of capabilities, popularity and accessibility in the coming years. Exciting times to be a part of!

You're going to college this fall, right?
Yes. I'll be attending Stanford University this fall and am excited to start.

Besides science, you're involved in other activities?
I was a Lincoln-Douglas debater on my high school debate team; I loved my team and all the memories from it. I also played the violin in the Utah Youth Symphony.


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