A cutting-edge lab at Cambridge University has been set up to perform detailed analysis of battery cycles in real time in an effort to solve problems and design better materials.
Prof Clare Grey, who has been appointed director of the Todd-Hamied Laboratory, has been working on battery technology for the past 17 years in the US. She said there were currently few academic groups in the UK doing similar research in the field.
‘It’s an area where there’s a lot of investment in the development end, but you also need basic fundamental science to underpin it and take it all the way from the invention through to production,’ she told The Engineer.
The lightweight and energy-dense materials used in lithium-ion batteries have provided one of the most important recent breakthroughs in batteries used for consumer electronics. They are increasingly being considered by the automotive industry to power hybrid and electric vehicles, as well as for load levelling to manage the flow of electricity in a power grid.
Grey’s particular focus among energy materials is on electrodes and electrolytes for lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells.
‘For example, NCM [nickel, cobalt, manganese] — that’s a cathode technology that was developed by Jeff Dahm and Mike Thackeray in 2001 and 10 years later we still don’t know completely how that material works.
‘I was involved in the beginning, in trying to work out what its structure was and how it changes as you cycle, and that material has got tremendous problems with it still — for example, it releases oxygen in the first cycle. So if you’re going to get that material to work commercially, you need people such as myself to try and look at the material from a fundamental perspective.’
One specific component of Grey’s research is to develop new tools based on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) for visualising how ions are transported through the different materials in real time, and to use this information to feed into the design of the next generation of batteries and fuel cells.
‘Basically, the purpose of my lab is to understand how battery materials work and how we can engineer and optimise them so that the lithium ions can be inserted and removed more quickly.
‘We still have a lot to learn if we’re going to make materials that will last for the seven to 10 years you want in automobile applications… but there has been tremendous progress over the last few years.’
The laboratory’s name is derived in part from its donor Dr Yusuf Hamied, managing director of the pharmaceutical company Cipla. ‘Todd’ refers to Prof Lord Alexander Todd, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist.