23 June 2020

The rechargeable Lithium-ion (LI) battery has become a ubiquitous technology that underpins our lives, powering our mobile devices and electric cars, as well as providing efficient storage for renewably generated electricity. But there is still a great research effort underway to increase their efficiency and reliability, as the technologies of the future will have even greater thirst for the portable energy power of batteries.

Professor Maria Forsyth, a former ARC Australian Laureate Fellowship recipient at Deakin University is Director of the ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre in Future Energy Storage Technologies, and is determined that the next breakthrough battery technology will have a manufacturing home here in Australia.

Professor Forsyth’s first foray into energy storage came early in her research career, in attempting to make solid state, high voltage electrolytic capacitors for next-generation implantable defibrillators that were being developed by a local Australian manufacturing company, Telectronics Pty Ltd.

“I decided I wanted to do research and my engineering and science mentors encouraged me to complete my science degree… even though I later joined the materials engineering department where I taught and undertook research for 18 years before moving to a materials engineering-focussed institute (Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials).”

Professor Forsyth says that teaching in an engineering department exposed her to industry problems relating to materials degradation and failing infrastructure, and that having experience in ion transport and energy storage research led naturally into the field of corrosion mitigation, as all relate to controlling the mysterious flow of electrons into and out of metals (charge transfer).

“The phenomena of charge transfer at interfaces is important to a wide range of applications—catalysis, corrosion, in fuel cells, and so on. When studying the corrosion of metals, we were trying to slow down this transfer of electrons, but in our battery research we are now trying to speed up the transfer in a controlled way.”

At the Training Centre in Future Energy Storage Technologies, different research teams are pushing the frontiers of battery technology in different ways. Some teams are focussed on improving existing LI cells, to make them higher energy density. Other teams are exploring new battery formulations, such as replacing lithium with sodium, which is more readily available and more environmentally friendly.

Part of the ARC’s Industrial Transformation Research Program, Training Centres bring together researchers and industry from different backgrounds to learn from each other, as the approaches to developing a better battery require a multidisciplinary approach. 

ARC Training Centres are also designed to provide opportunities for higher degree by research candidates and postdoctoral fellows to undertake a combination of research and industrial training, working across higher education and industrial placements, and building capacity in priority areas.

A key part of Professor Forsyth’s role at the Training Centre is weaving together the strands of research, engineering and manufacturing expertise to create the seeds of a viable battery industry based in Australia. 

“One of our partner companies, CALIX Ltd, based in Bacchus Marsh just outside Melbourne—whose expertise is in high surface area inorganic materials, such as oxides for the agricultural industry—is now exploring the manufacture of oxides for better electrodes,” says Professor Forsyth.

“My colleague Professor Jennifer Pringle at Deakin University is working with another company Boron Molecular Inc. towards developing manufacturing processes so that the electrolyte components, including polymers and the special salts that go into batteries, can be up-scaled using flow chemistry to make them cleaner and cheaper.

Professor Forsyth’s career path has blazed a trail that she is eager for other women in research and engineering to follow.  

“At the start of my career, I was one of only two women in the whole Faculty of Engineering in Monash. At the time I didn’t think about it so much but I was always in demand–I was always asked to go on every committee–for balance! Things are changing but I do think it’s important that younger women have role models in leadership positions.”

“There is still some way to go in Engineering and also in industry–still most of the CEO’s I meet in the materials industry are male.  In hiring for the Training Centre, we always seek to ensure a gender balance and I am keen to create opportunities for our next generation of women researchers.”

“At the end of the day, we are much richer for it.”

Professor Forsyth says that, after a hesitant beginning, there is a strong industry interest in making Australia a world leader in battery manufacturing technology.

“We (in the research team) have been trying to push batteries for a cleaner society since the 1990s, and for such a long time there was little industry interest… and then the South Australia blackout happened, and Elon Musk offered his battery farm. It was like the penny dropped that there was an industry waiting to be born, and now all of a sudden batteries are the thing.”

“The current Li ion cell dates from 1992, it is a nearly thirty year old technology. The markets are now at the tipping point in deciding what the next generation of batteries will be and who will make them—this is driven by all these new needs for batteries with different properties.”

“I’m so excited for what is happening now in Australia, the forces are aligning, and there is real potential for the birth of a new industry from the translation of Australia’s research efforts.”

 

Images (fom top): Professor Maria Forsyth. Credit: Donna Squire/Deakin University.

Professor Maria Forsyth (centre) with Vice Chancellor of Deakin University, Professor Iain Martin and Senator the Honourable Sarah Henderson at the official launch of the ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre in Future Energy Storage Technologies. Credit: Donna Squire/Deakin University.