Dr Beth Johnston, one of our FutureCat researchers,explains our scientific vision and how FutureCat research will benefit the UK
Why do we need improved lithium ion batteries?
With grave concerns surrounding climate change, it is essential to replace the use of vehicles using diesel or petrol engines with a greener means of energy storage. Lithium ion batteries present such a solution for electric vehicles and are already widely used in mobile phones and laptops. However, several problems exist with current lithium ion battery technology, relating to the amount of energy we can get out of the battery, the lifetime of the battery, the raw materials we currently use in batteries, and the safety of battery packs. For a greater proportion of the public to make the required switch to electric vehicles, new lithium ion batteries that can achieve longer driving ranges and longer lifespans, whilst also becoming cheaper to own and safer are undeniably essential.
What ethical issues surround current raw materials for lithium ion batteries?
The majority of lithium ion batteries currently in production rely heavily on cobalt – a metallic element. Many problems are associated with this metal involving cost, safety and ethical issues. Regarding ethical concerns, more than half of the world’s supply of cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo where exploitation, violence, coercion and abuses of power often go unchecked. Issues surrounding child labour and modern slavery also exist in the cobalt mines of the DRC, which is of major ethical concern to the UK. With an ever increasing demand for lithium ion batteries in the electric vehicle market, demand for cobalt also increases, exacerbating these issues. We are aiming to develop cobalt free battery materials by focusing on more earth-abundant, and therefore cheaper sources, such as iron, manganese and nickel.
What expertise can the UK provide in making better lithium ion batteries?
The Faraday Institution was established in 2017 with the goal of making the UK the go-to place for the research, development, manufacture and production of new electrical storage technologies such as lithium ion batteries. With government and industry funding, the Faraday Institution is well prepared to propel the UK to the forefront of the global lithium ion battery market. FutureCat’s team of scientists and engineers are spread across 7 top UK universities, alongside collaboration with UK-based industry partners and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, brings a wealth of expertise from various fields including chemistry, physics, materials science and engineering, allowing us to approach the challenge with fresh perspectives and novel ideas.
How will the UK benefit from this research?
As previously mentioned, having the UK at the forefront of lithium ion battery research, development, manufacture and production will be highly beneficial to both the economy of the UK and its reputation as a world leader in science and technology (indeed, the lithium ion battery as we know it would not exist without the seminal work conducted at the University of Oxford by 2019 Nobel Laureate John Goodenough). Furthermore, by providing training for large numbers of PhD and postdoctoral researchers involved in the FutureCat project and across a wide range of Faraday Institution funded projects, we are helping to build the next generation of scientists and engineers in the UK who will go on to lead future advances in technology.
And the science?
Our scientific vision spans across multiple disciplines – from understanding how individual atoms interact with each other to designing sophisticated electrode architectures to ensure our batteries perform to the best of their abilities. By both improving existing battery cathode chemistry and making brand new and novel structures, we are investigating a range of techniques to make and understand such materials. We are aiming to synthesise a wide variety of target compounds and control and tailor the compositions and properties to deliver the energy densities and lifespans required for the next generation of lithium ion batteries. In doing so, we will be prioritising the use of earth-abundant materials sources and low energy synthetic techniques to ensure sustainable battery development.
To efficiently screen and discover such new materials we are using state-of-the-art computational methods and machine-learning to predict both new chemical structures and guide optimum modification strategies for existing materials that will fulfil our requirements for longer lasting, better cathodes. However, our work does not end with identifying and making good cathode materials – batteries are complicated pieces of technology and require more work to make them viable for scale-up and commercial use. We are also investigating electrolyte additives and designer coatings that can be applied to our cathode materials. These serve to protect the surface of the electrode where unwanted side reactions with the electrolyte can cause energy loss over time. This is especially significant as we move to higher voltage systems, where such reactions are far more prevalent. Developing a detailed understanding of how these additives and coatings work at particular interfaces will help enhance electrode longevity. To further assist with industrial level scale-up, advances in electrode structuring will be made by considering new and novel architectures that give excellent larger-scale mechanical stability to our materials. Testing of materials in this manner will provide insight into existing cathode failure mechanisms that can be fed back both to the consortium to guide improvement strategies and to industry to provide bespoke manufacturing solutions.
Beth Johnston – Faraday Institution Research Fellow