One day, when batteries in laptops, phone and airplanes stop exploding, it might be because of the work of Travis Thompson.
The 29-year-old Cal Poly Pomona alumnus is poised to make a breakthrough in the batteries that power the gadgets of our digital world. And people are taking notice. Ford Motor Co. is supporting his research and Thompson is one of two Broncos named to this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 list, which recognizes outstanding individuals younger than 30.
Thompson’s (’10 mechanical engineering) roots at the university run deep. His mother is also an alumna, graduating in 1986 with a recreational therapy degree, and his father worked in facilities, servicing the heating and air-conditioning systems, while Thompson was growing up.
Thompson says his dad’s approach to life helped inspire his career in engineering.
“I saw in my dad this mechanical inkling and I grew up always being interested in science and math because of that,” he says. “We did everything around the house — if the car broke, we would get under it and take it apart. Even if we didn’t need to, a lot of times on the weekend, I would take things apart and put them back together.”
Although Thompson studied mechanical engineering and says he’s always liked cars and machines, his real interest laid elsewhere.
“I always wanted to do materials science, but Cal Poly didn’t have a materials science degree,” he says.
At one point, he considered changing his major to chemical engineering, and went to speak with the department chair, Winny Dong. It was a meeting that proved fortuitous for him, as he ended up doing research for her and making professional connections that led him on his career path. But first, he had to win Dong over.
“I don’t usually take students I haven’t had a class with because being a mentor is a lot of work and I like to test the students out a little bit first,” Dong says. “I tried to put a lot of barriers in his way. I gave him a lot of homework and said, ‘Do all of these things and come back to me next quarter and we’ll talk.’ Usually, when I do that with students they don’t come back, but he came back.”
Thompson ended up working for Dong for two years before another door opened for him. Jeff Sakamoto, a colleague of Dong’s she had known since college, had an opening for an undergraduate research position in his lab at Michigan State University. Dong recommended that Thompson check it out.
“I opened some doors for him, but he really did all the work,” Dong says.
Thompson clicked with Sakamoto and went to work in his lab researching battery technology. His focus is on developing batteries that are more powerful yet safer than the lithium-ion batteries that have been responsible for product recalls in recent years.
“The current lithium-ion technology is starting to reach its maximum potential. You’re starting to see these incidents like the Samsung recalls — a robot at JPL was totally melted down because the battery caught fire,” he says. “I’m thinking were going to see more of these incidents happening more because the margin of error is getting squeezed so thin.”
Thompson says the problem with existing technology is that batteries need to be filled with liquid that can cause an explosion and fire if they get too hot.
“What we’re working on is solid-state batteries, he says. “A solid-state battery replaces that liquid with a solid. Since it’s more stable, it enables advanced next-generation concepts.”
That could mean more wearable electronics, mobile devices with longer battery life or vehicles that can go farther between charges.
The technology Thompson is developing looks so promising that he has been tasked with commercializing it and the University of Michigan is gearing up to spin the lab off as an independent company. Sakamoto moved his research lab to the University of Michigan and Thompson followed suit.
Thompson attributes much of his success to his Cal Poly Pomona education.
“I think one of the things that really is unique is that polytechnic education,” he says. “The research experiences are very rich because you’re doing everything that grad students are, but two years earlier. I think that really jump-started everything I’m doing.”
Dong says she’s delighted to see Thompson gaining recognition for his work.
“He’s just one of those students that’s both bright and hard-working, and he’s a really humble person as well,” she says. “I am really proud.”