Elton Cairns

Elton Cairns
Chemical Senior Faculty Engineer
(510) 486-5028

I have been involved in electrochemistry, fuel cells, and rechargeable cells ever since I completed graduate school at UC Berkeley.  My research has taken me from UC to General Electric Research, Argonne National Laboratory, General Motors Research, and finally back to UC Berkeley and LBNL. Along the way, I have worked on PEM and molten carbonate fuel cells, liquid metal/molten salt cells, Li/FeS2 cells, Zn/NiOOH cells for EV’s, Zn/air cells, phase diagrams, thermodynamics, kinetics, transport phenomena, Li-ion cells, and currently, Li/S cells and electrocatalysis. My teaching at UC Berkeley has included electrochemical engineering, energy conversion and storage, transport phenomena, process design, and the chemical engineering laboratory course.

My outside professional activities have included editing scientific journals (Journal of the Electrochemical Society, and Electrochimica Acta), organizing scientific symposia, serving on professional society and NAS committees, and in elected offices including President of the Electrochemical Society and President of the International Society of Electrochemistry. I also enjoy serving as a consultant, and expert witness in court cases.

Full List of Publications | Recent Research
Research Group

The effective, efficient, and environmentally friendly generation and storage of energy are important current concerns for our society and our research group. The Cairns research group studies the fundamental properties and behavior of electrodes employed in high-performance rechargeable batteries and fuel cells. We synthesize and characterize new electrode materials in order to gain a fundamental understanding of the relationships among atomic and electronic structure, electrochemical performance, and long-term stability. For example, some ambient-temperature rechargeable lithium cells exhibit incomplete utilization of the active material in the positive electrode, resulting in lower capacity per unit mass than might otherwise be delivered. In cases such as this (e.g., sulfur electrodes and metal oxide electrodes in rechargeable lithium cells), we investigate fundamental means of enhancing material utilization through modifications in the composition and structure of the electrodes, thereby increasing cell specific energy. We investigate new electrodes, electrolytes, and other cell components, and we determine the fundamental mechanisms of capacity loss of the electrodes, as well as means for eliminating the loss.

The performance of electrodes employed in fuel cells that directly react such fuels as methanol and ethanol is typically limited by slow electrochemical kinetics. The goals of our research performed on these electrodes are to synthesize new highly active electrocatalysts and characterize their kinetic and mechanistic behavior. I doing this, we identify electrode structures, electrocatalysts, and electrolyte compositions that lead to improved cell performance and lifetime.

We rely heavily upon the use of advanced research tools, such as X-ray absorption spectroscopies (XAS) using synchrotron radiation (in collaboration with Prof. S. Cramer of UC Davis), to characterize the atomic and electronic properties of new electrode materials. We pioneered the use of photothermal deflection spectroscopy for the in situ characterization of electrochemical systems. Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) has been extended (in collaboration with Prof. J. Reimer of UCB) to the study of electronically conducting electrode materials and species adsorbed on the surface of electrocatalysts. This powerful technique is used for the atomic-level study of electrode materials for both batteries and fuel cells.

Current Research Group Members

Senior Research Associates:

  • Dr. Dan Sun
  • Ms. Ayako Kawase

Postdoctoral Researcher:

  • Dr. Yoon Hwa


  • Dr. Jinghua Guo (LBNL Advanced Light Source)
  • Prof. Bryan McCloskey (UCB/LBNL)
  • Dr. Brett Helms (LBNL Molecular Foundry)
  • Dr. Aniruddha Deb (Univ. of Michigan)
  • Dr. Tev Kuykendall (LBNL Molecular Foundry)