Sustainable vision powers battery team’s achievements

Over the past decade, the transition towards a world powered by sustainable energy has gained momentum.

In Australia, the renewable energy industry is growing, accounting for 32.5% of the country’s total electricity generation in 2021 – up 5% from 2020, according to the Clean Energy Council. But, as lithium-ion batteries, the most used batteries in the world, continue to demonstrate volatility in terms of both safety and sustainability, safer, cheaper and more sustainable battery storage technologies are needed to keep up with demand and support the energy transition.

Creating such technology requires taking a much closer look at the chemistry within a battery. Electrochemistry is the examination of the chemical processes that involve movement of electrons between materials through an electronic conductor to create electricity. It is essential in the development of battery technology – and is one area of materials science in which IFM researchers have been leading the way for more than a decade.

IFM Deputy Director and Alfred Deakin Professor Maria Forsyth is a world-leading materials scientist at the forefront of electrochemistry. Since 2010, Prof. Forsyth has led IFM’s electrochemistry group, as Chair of Electromaterials and Corrosion Science.

From a team of six, the group has grown to comprise more than 70 researchers who are designing and making new electromaterials, including advanced safer electrolytes, new sustainable binders, cathode materials and sustainable anode materials.

The team spans design, synthesis, modelling and advanced characterisation through to device prototyping. They are also using electrochemistry to explore the recycling and recovery of critical materials in used batteries and rare earth magnets used in every motor driving an EV or a wind turbine. But it wasn’t always so.

‘When we first joined Deakin, we were doing more corrosion related research – with electrochemistry also at its core – to increase the life of infrastructure. A battery is essentially a corrosion cell. At the time, battery technologies for energy storage were not considered as important in the Australian landscape,’ Prof. Forsyth says.

‘I remember well that this changed in 2016. That year I was part of the ACOLA [Australian Council of Learned Academies] expert working group delivering a report for then chief scientist Alan Finkel on the role of energy storage in Australia’s future energy supply.

‘We were exploring opportunities for various energy storage technologies, including batteries, in Australia. That year, after South Australia had its blackout and the world’s largest lithium-ion battery was supplied by Elon Musk and installed in Hornsdale to support the SA grid, was when I felt the beginning of a real shift in focus to electrochemical energy storage.’

Prof. Forsyth and her team have been at the forefront of battery research for over two decades and, with the surge of interest in battery technologies, they have continued to be leaders in the field, pushing the boundaries in energy storage research and developing new technologies for safer batteries such as zinc-ion and sodium-ion, as well as high energy density lithium metal batteries enabled by their novel ionic liquid electrolytes.

Solid-state batteries based on solid polymer electrolytes developed through collaboration with CSIRO and with international research partners is another exciting development coming from the team.

Among their innovations in 2022 was the use of computational methods to design a new type of polymer electrolyte for polymer-based solid-state batteries and the development of a novel solid polymer electrolyte material that can replace the flammable liquid solvents currently used in sodium batteries. The group also developed a new ionic liquid hybrid electrolyte that showed excellent performance in a high energy density lithium metal battery with improved stability and dendrite-free cycling; such batteries are applicable in aerospace, drones and long-range EVs.

In addition, researchers from the group, based at the ARC Training Centre for Future Energy Storage Technologies (StorEnergy) took steps towards a more efficient and cost-effective way to create sodium-ion batteries by developing optimisation protocols for their formation process. But one of the group’s biggest achievements in 2022 was the launch of the Battery Research and Innovation Hub – a $10.3 million world-class facility for battery design, fabrication and testing – an expansion of its previous iteration, BatTRI-Hub, which the group formed in 2016.

The bigger and better hub, situated a short walk from the Deakin Burwood campus, is enabling the team to demonstrate how fundamental science discoveries can be upscaled and made ready for the commercial market.

‘Battery Hub is instrumental when we’re talking about advanced manufacturing, but it is also instrumental in enabling start-ups and SMEs to enter the market, particularly to create new sustainable and ultimately more affordable systems,’ Prof. Forsyth says.

‘At Battery Hub, we’re looking at current manufacturing technologies and the ways in which these could be changed to decrease the ultimate cost of a battery.

‘We talk a lot about the fundamental science and new technologies, but there is also room for opportunities to improve processes – for example looking at AI for more modern manufacturing, using our new materials to make manufacturing more sustainable.’

With the Battery Hub up and running, Prof. Forsyth says they have a chance to regroup and refocus.

‘One of my concerns is that everyone is looking to lithium-ion batteries as the “go to” for all applications, and it’s a concern because not every application needs lithium-ion and we need to preserve our precious resources and the impact of mining these for where it makes sense to us to use them,’ Prof. Forsyth says.

‘I want to start looking at what’s next, not only from the high-tech perspective but also in terms of safety and affordability.

‘How do we make sure that everyone can afford energy storage in their homes or in remote and disadvantaged communities? I don’t know what that will be yet but I do want to put some of our efforts into looking at energy justice both technically and also in the education and social context.’

This article first appeared in the 2022 IFM Annual Report.