Princeton Profiles: Dan Steingart, exploring batteries with creativity

Dec. 28, 2015 noon
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While driving across the country, Dan Steingart found his passion for researching sustainable energy storage. The Princeton University assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, who grew up on the East Coast, was on his way to graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley when he thought about a future without oil.

"I was driving through the desert and I remembered 'Mad Max' and what happens when the oil runs out, what is going to happen to these towns," Steingart said. "Hopefully the oil won't run out for a long time, but this idea of needing to store energy and figuring out ways to store pockets of energy became very important to me because oil is energy that has been stored for millions of years, and we get to use it now to figure out a way of storing energy sustainably."

Steingart, whose lab is located in the new Andlinger Center building, studies everything that pertains to a battery, including its materials and packaging. He earned his bachelor's degree at Brown University before going to Berkeley, and he co-founded a company and worked in the private sector before taking a teaching position at the City College of New York. He joined Princeton's faculty in 2013.

"My lab is set up to make new materials, put those materials into batteries in various ways — because how you put the battery together matters a lot — make batteries of different sizes, test those batteries, beat them up, kill them and then dissect them and look at them, and then repeat the cycle again," Steingart said.

Four graduate students, three postdoctoral researchers and four undergraduates work in Steingart's lab. He encourages exploration and trying new things with his students.

"We don't just make things randomly, but we go with hunches and then see if that hunch works and refine it, refine it, refine it," Steingart said.

Mike Wang, a senior majoring in mechanical and aerospace engineering, is working on his senior thesis with Steingart as his adviser. He is studying the internal structure and health of a battery using sound waves.

"Dan wants us to be independent, and he also wants us to have the freedom to do what we want and to pursue what we are interested in," Wang said.

Princeton has allowed Steingart the freedom to pursue his research in creative ways. Said Steingart, "People generally don't think of engineers as creative people, but my colleagues and my students are among the most creative people I've ever met, and I've not seen a maximization of resources like this anywhere else I've been."