Batteries have revolutionized the world and enabled everything from mobile phones and laptop computers to Tesla cars.
However, batteries are far from perfect, since they contain toxic substances and have a relatively short life span, and batteries therefore continue to need further development to improve them in the future.
The Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded a major grant of DKK 13 million under its NERD research programme to a Danish researcher, who now has 7 years to focus on laying the foundation for the next revolution in battery research.
“The grant means a lot, because I can now set some high-risk goals in my research and I can try and carry out some very difficult tasks. A 7-year time frame enables me to set very high ambitions, and I plan to do just that,” explains Dorthe Ravnsbæk, Associate Professor, Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy, University of Southern Denmark.
Disorder is the Achilles heel of batteries
Dorthe Ravnsbæk’s wild research idea aims to take battery development to the next level.
Electrodes in batteries generally comprise stable materials, in which the atoms in the electrodes are arranged in structures with a high degree of spatial order. As current flows from the battery, ions move between the electrodes, and this process can change the degree of order of the electrodes so that the electrodes may gradually conduct current less efficiently.
Backed by the NERD grant, the question that Dorthe Ravnsbæk therefore wants to answer is: how does the disorder in the electrode material affect the function of the battery, and how does this differ for different types of electrode materials?
“In recent years, I have been working on developing techniques that enable us to send X-rays through the batteries to determine how the atoms move in relation to each other while the battery is in use. We can also see how the order of the electrodes changes and how this changes battery performance,” explains Dorthe Ravnsbæk.
Knowledge may help in manufacturing sustainable batteries
The aim is to create a basic research foundation for developing better batteries. Once researchers have an overview of how different materials in battery electrodes affect battery performance, they can, for example, search for more environmentally sound materials to use in batteries.
Today’s battery manufacturers mostly use electrodes made of cobalt, which is mostly mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But Dorthe Ravnsbæk’s research may show that electrodes made of iron, manganese or titanium work just as well as cobalt. Today, these elements are often excluded because they do not provide the required battery performance because their atomic structures are disordered.
However, this does not necessarily need to be so.
“Cobalt is extremely toxic, so being able to replace cobalt with other materials has some clear environmental benefits. The disordered materials may also be able to extend battery life, because if we understand the structure of the electrodes better, we can more optimally determine whether this disorder damages or benefits the battery,” says Dorthe Ravnsbæk.
May result in better pacemaker batteries
Dorthe Ravnsbæk says that her research also has great life science perspectives. The most obvious is for batteries that are inserted into the body, such as in a pacemaker. The batteries that keep pacemakers running also contain inappropriate materials in the electrodes, and replacing some of these materials with others that do not present the same risk to health has clear benefits.
Another life science perspective is the technology that Dorthe Ravnsbæk is developing to study the disordered systems in electrodes. The same technologies in the form of X-rays and data-processing programs may be able to be used to study disordered systems in nature: for example, to advance knowledge on the atomic structures of cells and biomembranes.
“This is a major task. Solving the problems for a single battery system is not that difficult. However, understanding the relationships between the materials we use in batteries, how the disorder arises and what this means for battery performance is a difficult task because there can be 100,000 combinations of materials that affect the system. We therefore need to take an intelligent approach to the task so that we develop some model systems that can map these links in general. This does not merely mean firing X-rays into batteries and determining what happens. The methods need to be optimized,” says Dorthe Ravnsbæk.
The grant awarded to Dorthe Ravnsbæk is part of the Foundation’s new NERD research programme in which the Foundation supports wild and creative research ideas within the natural and technical sciences. The new programme targets ambitious, dedicated researchers who give priority to pursuing their own creative ideas in the laboratory and to maintaining their focus on one theme over the long term to generate new original knowledge. The Foundation has allocated nearly DKK 300 million to NERD.
The first 8 grants have just been awarded. Read more here.
Christian Mostrup, Senior Programme Lead, +45 3067 4805, [email protected]