Kicking the fossil fuel habit

Better batteries for hybrid cars are one goal for scientists planning to use supercomputers to model new materials at the nano-scale.

They are imitating the way the pharmaceutical industry makes new drugs, by investigating the chemical and physical properties of new nano-materials in the virtual realm before creating real samples.

‘New materials hold the key to cleaner and lighter lithium batteries for hybrid electric cars which will help kick the fossil fuel habit,’ said Prof Saiful Islam at Bath University’s chemistry department. The cobalt used in lithium batteries for mobiles and other portable devices is too expensive and toxic for larger cells so the search is on for a replacement.

In collaboration with Johnson Matthey, AEA Batteries, Mast Carbon and St Andrews University, Islam’s team aims to design novel compounds that increase the total energy the batteries can store and make them better at producing sudden boosts in power. The Bath group has access to supercomputers at the Rutherford and Daresbury labs for modelling and understanding the new materials. It will be looking at the surfaces of nano-structured oxides. ‘At the nano-scale the surfaces of the structures become important,’ said Islam.

Unusually, the findings from the computational work will be fed to the St Andrews team which will focus on chemical experimentation. ‘Then we can help the interpretation of the experiments, identify which directions of research are likely to be dead ends and predict new avenues and materials,’ said Islam. Their starting points are the existing classes of materials on the cathode side such as layered oxides that allow lithium ions to enter and be released.

The work is part of a £2.1m government-funded project to develop energy storage technology. Researchers at Strathclyde and SurreyUniversities are examining supercapacitors. ‘Batteries are very good at energy density but not so good at releasing it quickly,’ said Islam. ‘Supercapacitors can release it quickly so the hope is to integrate the two technologies.’ This research will also be important for methods of storing energy from renewable sources such as solar and wind power. ‘If we don’t develop an efficient way of storing energy from renewable sources it will be the equivalent of a water company only supplying tap water when it’s raining,’ said Islam.