Why are we so busy developing new batteries?

The EU wants to accelerate the development of new batteries—but why is this so urgent? Tejs Vegge, professor at DTU Energy, provides the answer.

Q: Why is the development of new batteries urgent?

A: Electrification of energy, industry—and in particular the transport sector—can help to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, which is an important element in the green transition. Europe has a large car industry that demands more efficient and more sustainable batteries, but the conventional way of developing batteries is slow and we don’t have time to wait for that.

Q: How long does it normally take?

A: The development of the lithium-ion battery, which is the rechargeable battery most used in portable electronics and electric cars, took about 20 years from the first idea in the 1970s until the final product came on the market in the early 1990s.

Q: How will you speed things up?

A: In the EU project BIG-MAP, we will use artificial intelligence to automatically collect, analyse, and apply data from all parts of the development process. This will allow our models to calculate new solutions much faster than at present. The process of developing batteries consists of many steps and involves many different academic competencies, theories, computer simulations, and laboratory experiments—and this produces huge amounts of data. A battery may look simple, but it’s a very complex technology involving a lot of materials working together and processes that have to be controlled so they don’t get out of hand—e.g. overheat or explode.

There are so many parameters that you can change in the manufacture of a battery that it is difficult to understand and optimize them all. Here, we benefit from artificial intelligence, which can gather and manage the large amounts of data and find new patterns in the information that we ourselves wouldn’t immediately be able to. This can lead us to find new solutions more quickly.

BIG-MAP also allows us to turn development on its head. Instead of starting with the idea of a new material or a new atomic structure, we start with the properties we want from an ultra-efficient battery, then work backwards to find out what materials and atomic structures we should use and how we should subsequently treat them to obtain the desired properties. This process is known as ‘inverse design’.

Q: What is an ultra-efficient battery?

A: Here, we are thinking of a battery that combines three important properties—high capacity, i.e. that it can store a lot of energy without the use of expensive and rare materials, fast recharging, and long service life. Currently, the three factors often interfere with one another.

We can make batteries that can be charged quickly—but then they have a smaller capacity and a shorter service life because the fast charging and discharges negatively impact durability. Conversely, we can make batteries with higher capacity, but which are then slower to discharge. Globally, many researchers are working to develop batteries that can tolerate fast discharging without compromising on durability.

Q: Why should the solution be European?

A: It’s important that we find a solution based on European competences and materials. Currently, cobalt is used in batteries, and it is a mineral that is extracted in Africa and often under critical conditions. It is also not sustainable or scalable to use materials that are in scarce supply—or from remote parts of the world. For example, by using European materials, we also achieve security of supply, making us independent.

We also have some of the world’s foremost battery researchers in Europe, major companies that supply materials for the world’s entire battery production, and a large automotive industry that can absorb the batteries. We have advanced research infrastructures such as MAX IV and ESS in Lund, Sweden, which can provide formidable data on materials etc. that we can utilize in development.

In Europe, we’re also good at and willing to cooperate. This can be an advantage in terms of collecting and sharing data, which can increase understanding of battery performance—whether it’s driving a car up a mountain in Spain in 40 degree heat or in minus 20 degrees in Finland.

Q: The first phase of BIG-MAP is three years—where are you in 2023?

A: In phase one, we need to develop the methods that can help us to make better and more sustainable batteries more quickly. Initially, the methods will be used to improve existing components and materials, which will also be in use by 2023.

In phase two, we must be able to use the methods to invent entirely new types of batteries that can be produced cheaply and sustainably in large quantities—i.e. without the use of cobalt—and in the long term we must also be able to use organic materials derived from rhubarb, for example.

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