Driving battery innovation
Dr Peter Baker of the UK’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source and Co-investigator on the Faraday Institution FutureCat project, shares his thoughts on harnessing science and industry to drive battery innovation.
As Cornwall starts to extract significant amounts of lithium and Tata announces a new £4bln gigafactory to be built in Somerset, southwest England is set to become a hub for energy storage innovation. This is an encouraging addition to the existing battery and electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing capacity in northeast England.
The UK is not currently a major producer of lithium, and developing a domestic supply chain would be an important step in modernising its energy storage landscape and decarbonising its transport network. This transformation will involve technological and financial changes beyond specific points in the supply chain, like mines and gigafactories, as well as incubating the small-scale battery innovations that add future value to the economy.
The large-scale production represented by gigafactories would help drive down the cost of battery systems – the most expensive aspect of EVs – and reach the volumes necessary to cease the sales of solely combustion-engine vehicles in the 2030s.
One of the consequences of widespread EV adoption is the prospect of using large groups of EVs as an independent energy storage facility, whereby cars that are not in use could be used to balance the grid. Most EV owners charge their cars at home overnight. Already, some energy providers are remotely controlling when these cars charge to minimise the cost and carbon intensity of charging, while ensuring that they are full when needed the following morning.
In future, these plugged-in EV batteries could also return energy to the grid at peak times through a Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) system. In these set-ups, EV drivers can enter agreements with energy companies to allow controlled charging and discharging of their batteries, shifting electricity consumption from high-demand periods to low-demand periods. This is one way to create a more flexible, dependable and efficient electrical grid, easing the adoption of intermittent renewable generation.
But in order to modernise its energy storage landscape and decarbonise its transport network, the UK must balance its support between gigafactories and small-scale battery innovation. Small-scale battery innovation provides the intellectual impetus for new design and construction – anything from new materials to entirely new charging methods.
Two of the key properties for battery materials are how much energy they can store and how quickly they can absorb and release that energy. At the atomic level, these properties are defined by where the atoms are and how quickly ions can travel through the material.
Neutrons and muons are fundamental particles that interact with matter in a unique way, making them a particularly useful tool for studying electrodes and electrolytes. Neutrons are commonly used to determine where atoms are in the structure of materials and their rapid dynamics, while muons are used to look at the slower dynamics as ions move around the structure.
The unique technical capabilities of advanced tools at large-scale experimental facilities such as ISIS have opened new possibilities for studying battery materials, often in collaboration with industry.
Examples include long-standing work by scientists from Toyota to study how ions move through battery materials using muons, which has been extended to newer chemistries and studying materials inside more realistic cells. More recently, a UK battery start-up used neutron diffraction to understand the ageing mechanisms of their materials and improve cycle life at high temperatures.
On top of this, work with the Faraday Institution has brought together research scientists and industry partners on projects with commercial potential to reduce battery cost and weight, improve performance and reliability, and develop whole-life strategies including recycling and reuse. The process of discovering, developing, and deploying innovation in batteries in the UK has recently been advanced by the Faraday Battery Challenge Programme, which brings together private companies of different sizes and stages of development with universities and research institutions.
The roles batteries will play in decarbonising the global economy will continue to grow in the coming decades. They are complex roles, just as batteries are complex characters. That complexity will be apparent all the way down from the global stage to the atomic-level processes studied using muons and neutrons. Working upwards from the atomic scale will enable new types of batteries in future, better suited to a wider range of applications that have different requirements.
As we see encouraging additions to the battery production chain within the UK, it is an opportunity to look forward to further developments in both innovation and industry that will accelerate the transition to a sustainable future.