Skip to main content
James Pikul
September 18, 2023

Focus on new faculty: James Pikul is redefining what we use to generate and store energy

Written By: Adam Malecek


A robot, hard at work, runs low on power. Instead of needing to be plugged in and waiting to recharge, the robot simply “eats” some nearby metal, which provides power to top off its battery.

This is just one of the “disruptive” energy storage technologies developed by James Pikul, who joined the UW-Madison Department of Mechanical Engineering as the Leon and Elizabeth Janssen Associate Professor in August 2023.

In his research, Pikul aims to make transformative advances in energy storage and robotics by understanding and exploiting electrochemistry and soft matter physics.

“Electrochemistry is a science that connects chemical reactions with electricity, and that’s exciting because we can use our amazing control over electricity to control the chemical and physical world we live in,” Pikul says. “Or we can do the reverse—use chemistry to control electrons. That interface is what we’re studying, and we can use it to make better batteries, build intelligent materials, and enable more capable robots.”

A unique focus of Pikul’s lab is developing improved energy storage technologies for robots. Currently, many robots can operate for only a fairly short amount of time using lithium-ion batteries. Pikul says that with the pace of incremental improvements in lithium-ion batteries, it will take about 15 years for this battery technology to enable a robot to operate for three hours. He’s not content to wait around that long, which is why he’s exploring totally new energy storage technologies that can be implemented much sooner.

Enter metal-eating robots.

Pikul has developed a device that, when it comes into contact with a metal surface, catalyzes the rust reaction, allowing the robot to extract energy from the freed electrons. It could enable metal-eating robots that can power themselves by scavenging while conducting search-and-rescue missions. This technology also has the potential to make shipping more sustainable, where sheets of metal could essentially function like fuel cells to power a ship. Pikul has founded a startup company, Metal Light, to commercialize the technology.

“Although my lab focuses on robots as a motivating theme, many of the technologies we develop are broadly useful for improving energy storage and efficiency,” Pikul says. “Energy storage technology is becoming such a global necessity for many areas, including grid storage that can back up our renewables as well as for sustainably powering electric vehicles, aviation and shipping.”

Pikul earned his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and PhD (2015) in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He comes to UW-Madison from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics.

His lab has achieved several significant breakthroughs, including creating the world’s best small batteries. He was also the first to demonstrate a method for enabling metal to “heal” itself at room temperature. By leveraging electrochemistry, he can take two pieces of broken metal and get them to grow metal that reconnects them into a single piece—a process that’s similar to how a bone heals. The method—which involves dipping the metal pieces in a fluid and applying electrical current to prompt the repair process—allows for the repair of structures that were previously unrepairable, such as geometrically complex 3D-printed metals.

In addition, Pikul studies the mechanics of soft robots with the goal of making robots that can safely and comfortably assist humans. He has been using this work to reduce the number of injuries experienced by nurses.

At UW-Madison, Pikul is excited to teach courses on electrochemistry. “It’s super interdisciplinary,” he says, “and I like that my courses bring together students from many different backgrounds, because it creates new ideas and opportunities for learning.”

Top photo by Joel Hallberg