PULLMAN, Wash. – Tracy (Jianying) Ji, a Ph.D. student in Washington State University’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, has been recognized as the Boeing and Flightglobal Engineering Student of the Year (ESOYA). It is the first time that a WSU student has received the prestigious award.

Boeing and Flightglobal have held the ESOYA competition since 2005 as a way of encouraging students in aerospace engineering. Open to any engineering student around the world, competitors are judged on the potential impact of their research on the aerospace industry. Ji was one of two students and the graduate level winner of the award.

Eight papers, patent

After receiving a master’s degree at Beijing University of Chemical Technology, Ji came to WSU in 2009 to pursue her Ph.D. Her advisor in China suggested that she work with Katie Zhong, professor in WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. Since arriving in 2009, she has published eight papers and has filed for a patent.

Working with Zhong, Ji is working to develop a new type of battery that would be lighter, safer and more environmentally friendly than current lithium ion batteries.

Boeing has been working to develop an all-electric airplane, in which more electronics will be powered through battery technology. The technology, however, remains a limiting factor.

Soy protein electrolyte

Ji is working to develop a new electrolyte for batteries that is made out of an environmentally friendly soy protein. Electrolytes are the part of the battery that allow for the movement of electrons between the anode and the cathode to create electricity. Usually, electrolytes are liquid acid solutions. The electrolyte solution can leak and create a fire hazard.

“In some portable electronics, the batteries can reach temperature as hot as 200 degree Celsius — hot enough to cook eggs,” says Zhong. “That’s a big safety concern.”

Environmentally friendly

Batteries also create an environmental hazard for disposal.

Ji’s soy protein-based electrolyte is solid and lighter weight than traditional electrolyte materials. In combining the soy protein with more traditional electrolyte materials, she was able to produce high conductivity, while producing a material that could be disposed of more easily. It also could reduce overall battery weight.

“The safety issue can be solved, and the battery is lightweight and more environmentally friendly,” says Zhong. “This work is very practical and highly needed in industry.”

Top 50 grad students

Last year, Ji achieved another global honor. She was selected as one of top 50 graduate students and/or post-doctors from around the world invited to attend the inaugural World Materials Summit Student Congress.

This summer, as the only winner at WSU, she received support to attend Singularity University, a California-based university that brings about 80 graduate students from around the world together with business leaders to address global challenges and develop entrepreneurial ideas in advanced technology. Ji said she had always assumed that she would become a professor, but since participating in Singularity University, she has become more focused on developing her ideas into a business.

A team effort

Ji and members of her team are invited to Boeing in Seattle this fall for an awards presentation. She gives credit to her research group for much of her success. Led by Zhong, the group includes students Bin Li, Weston Wood, Brooks Lively, and Tian Liu.

“I am very happy to receive this great honor, and I am very proud of my group,” she says. “My advisor has given me the freedom to pursue various projects without objection and provides insightful discussions about the research. She is my best role model for a scientist, mentor, and teacher.”

“What’s more, our group members help each other, and they are a valuable sources of ideas and motivation.”

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Contact: Tina Hilding, WSU College of Engineering and Architecture, thilding@wsu.edu, 509-335-5095