Story by David Fowler, The Engineer, 12 September 2019

A multidisciplinary team of researchers is setting out to develop the next generation of lithium-ion batteries. The result is expected to be batteries with a longer lifespan and greater energy density, which could transform the performance and range of electric vehicles.

The FutureCat project was awarded £11m by the Faraday Institution on September 4, 2019 over an initial four years from October.

The team, to be led by Prof Serena Corr at Sheffield University’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, will include Cambridge, Oxford and Lancaster Universities, UCL, Isis Neutron and Muon Source, NPL, and 11 industry partners.

Faraday funding puts battery research on full-charge

The project will focus on cathode design, to produce cathodes that hold more charge, are better suited to prolonged cycling, and promote ion mobility – a factor that aids greater power density and fast charging.

The project also aims to reduce dependency of cell manufacturers on cathodes containing cobalt, because of its expense and ethical concerns surrounding its mining.

Prof Corr said that with current cathodes, degradation occurs over time, precluding long term stable performance. In high voltage batteries there is a risk of a dangerous reaction between the cathode and electrolytes currently used. “The project will also be looking at additives to increase stability of the electrolyte,” said Prof Corr.

Unusually, the project will look at new approaches to the chemistry and architecture of cathodes.

Crucially the team draws expertise from multiple fields, with materials scientists, inorganic chemists, solid state chemists, physicists, chemical engineers and computational experts to provide a holistic view.

Prof Corr said one approach to designing new chemistries will be to predict new structures through computational techniques; the predictions will be fed to a synthetic chemistry group to synthesise new materials, which will be passed to electrochemists to test them in batteries.

“The other novel aspect of this project is that we’re also looking at the architecture of the cathodes –the particles themselves and the morphology, and whether or not we can create novel architectures that allow those high energy and high power densities to be accessed,” she said.

“It’s a very ambitious programme, but this sort of investment enables us to assemble a very comprehensive team. We are able to take the expertise of each from these areas and apply it to these challenges.”

FutureCat was one of five projects which were awarded a total of £55m from the Faraday Institution last week. Sheffield is also a partner in Nextrode, a consortium led by Oxford University with five other universities and six industry partners, to revolutionise the way electrodes for Li-ion batteries are manufactured. Prof Corr said: “Part of what we are doing at FutureCat will feed into Nextrode. Making sure new cathodes can drop right into the manufacturing supply chain is another challenge.”

Nexgenna, led by St Andrews University with five other UK partner laboratories, three industrial partners and collaborations with Diamond Light Source and five leading overseas research institutes, will accelerate the development of sodium-ion battery technology. Its aim is to put on the path to commercialisation a safe sodium ion battery with high performance, low cost and a long cycle life, suitable for static energy storage and low-cost vehicles.

Catmat, led by Bath University with six other university and 12 industry partners, will investigate the fundamental mechanisms at work in novel cathodes that currently prevent the use of nickel-rich and lithium-rich cathode materials. In LiSTAR (Lithium-Sulfur Technology Accelerator), UCL will lead an effort to enable rapid improvements in lithium-sulphur technologies.

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