A Clemson University assistant professor who is working to make hybrid car batteries last longer won an award as part of a 17-year program that recognizes some of South Carolina’s top technological advancements.

Simona Onori, an assistant professor of automotive engineering, took home an InnoVision Sustainability Award from an awards dinner in Greenville. She is helping extend the life of lithium-ion batteries and finding ways to reuse them when their time on the road is done.

Simona Onori, an assistant professor in the Department of Automotive Engineering, works in her lab at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research.

Simona Onori, an assistant professor in the Department of Automotive Engineering, works in her lab at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research.

“I am pleased, honored and humbled to win this award,” she said. “Thank you to Douglas W. Kim and Angela Halpin for encouraging me to enter. Many others in South Carolina are highly qualified, so I’m especially thankful to be chosen.”

The InnoVision Awards Program is “South Carolina’s premiere organization dedicated to the advancement of technology in the state through communication, education and recognition of the spirit of innovation and technological progress,” according to its website.

Deloitte founded the program in 1999, and it is presented by McNair Law Firm.

Zoran Filipi, chair of the Department of Automotive Engineering, congratulated Onori on her award.

“Dr. Onori is highly deserving of the InnoVision sustainability award,” Filipi said. “Her innovations are helping position Clemson University as a leader in clean energy research, not just in South Carolina but worldwide.”

At the heart of Onori’s research are algorithms that help hybrid cars decide when they should run on gas and when they should draw energy from the batteries. Relying too heavily on the batteries will quickly wear them out, so it can be a delicate balance, she said.

Warranties on car batteries usually last eight to 10 years. Replacing batteries costs several thousand dollars for the most popular models. It’s not a home-repair job for most drivers. Improper handling of hybrid-vehicle batteries can lead to electrocution.

Then there are questions about how to keep worn-down batteries from going to waste. Onori said batteries could be repurposed when they are retired from the road.

“Most such lithium-ion batteries could still be viable for use in smart-grid applications,” Onori said.

When hybrid cars first became widely available to the public in 1997, they had nickel metal hydride batteries. But automakers in recent years began switching over to lithium-ion batteries, which are lighter and can hold a charge longer.

Most new hybrid cars carry lithium-ion batteries. Yet, challenges remain when lithium-ion batteries are used, including life, safety and cost.

Onori has been putting them to test in the Battery Aging and Characterization Lab she created two years ago at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research.

Each hybrid car has a battery pack that contains hundreds of battery cells, each of which looks like an oversized AA battery. Onori puts those battery cells in a temperature controlled environment as she charges and discharges the cell.

In so doing, she can simulate how a battery would perform in any environment from the desert to the tundra.

Her experiments are opening new insights into how batteries degrade when used in hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. With the data, she works to improve vehicle efficiency and mileage.

Onori has been in demand around the world. In just over a year, she has shared her knowledge at the Beijing Institute of Technology, the University of Stuttgart in Germany, the University of Trento in Italy, Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and Boeing in Huntsville, Alabama.

Congratulations on the InnoVision award also came from Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering and Science.

“This award is richly deserving,” he said. “Dr. Onori is a wonderful ambassador of the department and the college.”