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Inexpensive materials for high-performance batteries of the future

A new study has shown for the first time how inexpensive materials can be used in high-performance batteries of the future.

The study, published last week in ACS Energy Letters, is a collaboration between Monash University, the India Institute of Technology Bombay-Monash Research Academy, and Deakin University.

Scientists and engineers have been focused on finding a more sustainable way of using lithium batteries which rely on scarce resources and is challenging to produce on a large scale at affordable prices.

But now scientists have shown that using a ‘carbon cloth collector’ can improve the sulfur utilisation of batteries, which would make them more efficient.

“Batteries of the future are necessary because in various significant market areas they form a vital part of the transition away from fossil fuels,” said study author Professor Douglas MacFarlane, from the Monash University School of Chemistry.

“Integration of renewables into the grid is hampered by the variability of the supply, and battery storage either in the home or at the wind/solar farm is seen as a necessary, but currently very expensive, component of the system” he said.

The research was conducted through a highly innovative PhD program in the IITB-Monash Research Academy – a partnership between the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB), India and Monash University.

Deakin University, with expertise  in the  prototyping and scale up of the batteries, also played a key role in the study. The research is part of a longer term collaboration between Monash, Deakin and the ITTB funded through an Australia India Strategic Research Fund (AISRF) project aimed at developing affordable high-performance batteries.

“The most immediate application of these batteries in India could be in local transportation applications, for example in the Auto-Rickshaws that are extensively used in Asia as well as smaller electric vehicles (EVs),” said study author, Professor Maria Forsyth, from Deakin University.

“In Australia we could see such batteries powering EVs, and they could also be used for home battery storage,” she said.

The study describes outstanding performance for a high-energy density room-temperature sodium-sulfur (RT Na-S) battery, with the discovery that a simple chemical activation of a carbon cloth current collector (which researchers fill with a sulfur-based liquid electrolyte ) could allow  a Na-S battery to operate at near its theoretical voltage and deliver an energy density of just under 1kWh/kg of Sulfur.

The appeal of the Na-S battery is that the raw materials, sodium salts and sulfur are very commonplace and inexpensive.

The battery operates at room temperature and can be charged and discharged at reasonable rates, for example 1/2 an hour charging and discharging.

The carbon cloth is the key to the development. By activating it in a simple process it becomes a catalytic agent in the discharge process of the sulfur electrode, leading to a higher overall voltage and extended cycle life.

The future of battery power

Nadine Cranenburgh investigates the next-gen of stored-energy technology.

Peak-proof renewable energy, advanced manufacturing growth and a long-lasting phone charge have one thing in common: battery innovation. The CRC for Future Battery Industries (FBICRC) and the CRC-P for Advanced Hybrid Batteries are charging up to take Australia’s homegrown industry to the next level.

Investment bank UBS predicts the worldwide market for batteries will grow to $US134-$US426 billion ($AU199-$AU636 billion) by 2030 — driven by increased demand for renewable energy storage, government-mandated uptake of electric vehicles and consumer electronics sales. Another key factor is the decreasing cost of lithium-ion batteries, which has plummeted by 85 per cent during the past decade.

Australia exports battery minerals such as lithium, nickel and cobalt. But according to the CEO of FBICRC, Stedman Ellis, the nation has the opportunity to capitalise on our mineral wealth, homegrown research and technical expertise to establish local R&D, manufacturing and recycling facilities.

“We have the minerals the world needs to support demand over the next 10-20 years,”says Ellis. “The challenge, and opportunity, is to move downstream and become a price-maker and not a price-taker.”

The FBICRC, based at Curtin University in Western Australia, received $25 million in Federal Government funding in April 2019. Additionally, 58 partners from industry, academia and government have pledged $110 million of support during the FBICRC’s six-year lifespan.

Finding a niche

Market researcher Mordor Intelligence predicts North America and the Asia-Pacific region will be hotspots for the global battery market over the next five years, with the United States, India and China playing important roles.

Ellis says that while it will be difficult for Australia to compete in the bulk production market, local manufacturers could find a niche in specialised industries such as defence. There is also an opportunity to establish recycling and re-use facilities to meet domestic needs and those of the Asia-Pacific region.

Australia could also find a competitive edge in the safe, environmentally responsible production of high-quality materials. For example, a high proportion of the cobalt used in battery production is mined in the Congo, Africa, where workers are poorly protected from safety hazards.

FBICRC estimates battery industries will deliver a $2.5 billion benefit to the Australian economy during the next 15 years. To quantify the employment, economic and investment outcomes, FBICRC has commissioned a project led by the Perth USAsia Centre and the University of Western Australia to determine how we can best leverage the regional requirements and opportunities through international partnerships, business development and government policy design.

The CSIRO will also map the current skills and capabilities of Australia’s battery industries as a baseline to measure future growth.

Linking the value chain

The goal of the FBICRC is to tackle industry-identified gaps in the battery value chain, from mining and processing through to battery manufacturing and recycling. Progress has already been made on the next step after mining, with the first fully automated lithium hydroxide manufacturing facility outside China launching operations in Kwinana, an outer suburb of Perth. Wesfarmers-owned Kidman Resources plans to build a second plant in the same industrial area, but has delayed its final investment decision until early 2021.

Two of FBICRC’s flagship projects address gaps further down the value chain: bedding-down the precursors for local manufacture of cathodes and a national battery-testing facility to verify the operation of Australian-made and imported cells.

Professor Peter Talbot, FBICRC Program Manager, says Australia’s battery minerals could be processed locally to make the precursors for battery manufacture [cathodes, anodes and electrolytes] rather than being exported.

“Australia has had a strong cohort of battery scientists for many years, but they have had to work overseas because we didn’t have that industry [locally],” he says.

To demonstrate our domestic capability for battery manufacture, Talbot established a demonstration facility at Banyo Pilot Plant at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) — the first in Australia to take raw materials and process them into finished, commercial batteries.

“It’s not just about showing it’s possible, it’s about helping industry get up to speed,” says Talbot.

The National Battery Testing Facility will be designed to test the real-life operation of a wide range of battery cells, from familiar cylindrical lithium-ion cells through to grid-scale vanadium redox flow batteries. It will be co-located with QUT’s hydrogen pilot plant and store solar energy in a microgrid to avoid destabilising the wider electricity network. The energy stored in the batteries being tested will be used to power an electrolyser, which produces green hydrogen.

Hybrid approach

While lithium-ion batteries dominate the current market, they have limitations. The $3 million CRC-P for Advanced Hybrid Batteries is working to modify the properties of batteries to reduce cost and increase efficiency and capacity. It is led by manufacturing company Calix Global, in collaboration with Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) and BAT-TRI Hub research centre, as well as chemical manufacturer Boron Molecular.

IFM Research Fellow Dr Robert Kerr says hybrid lithium-ion batteries replace the graphite anode in conventional lithium-ion cells with higher-powered lithium titanate (LTO) with various cathode materials. 

“It still operates under very similar principles, but you can achieve higher power density.”

Calix will experimentally produce nano-active cathode materials for hybrid batteries at its BATMn flash calcination reactor in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, which can produce up to 250kg per hour. The company is currently prototyping a lithium manganese oxide cathode which has potential applications in electric vehicles, energy storage and portable electronics.

Calix is also working with the FBICRC to investigate more efficient extraction of lithium from spodumene ore.

“Calix will investigate whether flash calcination technology could be exploited to improve recovery rates and economics of lithium beneficiation and processing,” says Dr Matt Boot-Handford, R&D Manager for Batteries and Catalysts at Calix.


Beyond lithium batteries 

Professor Peter Talbot, FBICRC Program Manager, says Australia has identified alternative options to lithium-ion batteries. For example, WA-based Australian Vanadium recently supplied a 320kWh vanadium redox flow battery (VRFB) to store solar energy on a dairy farm in Meredith, Victoria. The battery was manufactured in the US with vanadium ore mined in Australia and locally processed into an electrolyte solution.

VRFBs, developed by chemists at the University of New South Wales, use large tanks of liquid electrolyte to store energy. They are a safer and more recyclable alternative to lithium-ion batteries for renewable energy storage, particularly in remote or regional areas where space is not an issue.

Lithium-sulfur batteries, sodium-ion and sodium-air batteries could also be future alternatives, particularly in high temperature or hazardous environments.

“Materials in sodium batteries are abundant, cheap and benign,” says IFM Research Fellow Dr Robert Kerr.

Super-thin, super-capacity, clean batteries from graphene oxide

An energy storage alternative using technology better than lithium or even solar is under development as researchers work to efficiently capture the energy of graphene oxide (GO).  

Under a new $3.45 million Cooperative Research Centre Project (CRC-P) grant, researchers at Swinburne University of Technology and Flinders University will partner with Australian industry to commercialise the world’s first alternative to lithium-ion battery (LIB) technology as an energy storage alternative.

The industry collaboration, with Australian Stock Exchange-listed First Graphene Ltd and  Victorian manufacturer Kremford Pty Ltd, aims to make inroads into the production of a new super-capacity GO-powered battery, an energy storage alternative to the emerging LIB technology.  

Researchers at Swinburne’s Centre for Micro-Photonics are working on a commercially viable, chemical-free, long-lasting safe GO-based supercapacitor which offers high performance and low-cost energy storage capabilities.  

Graphene is the lightest, strongest, most electrically conductive material available and has been predicted to generate revolutionary new products in many industry sectors. But so far unreliable quality and poor manufacturing processes has prevented an industrial graphene market.

Last year First Graphite entered into a research agreement with Professor Raston’s research group at Flinders University to improve GO processing and production.     

The new national CRC Project via the Australian Government’s Advance Manufacturing Fund will expand Flinders University’s clean technologies and nanotech research focus.

Professor Colin Raston, the South Australian Premier’s Professorial Research Fellow in Clean Technology, says there is significant global research to improve energy storage capability to support its role in the development of sustainable energy storage systems.

“For example, we’re seeing the rapid rise of LIB around the world, notably with South Australia’s significant investment in the new storage facility near Jamestown in this State.”

The ‘High performance energy storage alternative to lithium ion batteries’ project seeks to advance the GO-based supercapacitor that has promising superior energy density, flexibility and environmental sustainability ahead of traditional batteries.

“This project aims to develop the manufacturing specifications for the commercial production of a graphene oxide (GO) super-capacitor with the ‘look and feel’ of a LIB but with superior performance across weight, charge rate, lifecycle and environmental footprint factors,” Professor Raston says.

“The production of GO from graphite ore, without generating lots of waste, is an important part of this collaborative project.”

First Graphene (ASX code: FGR) managing director Craig McGuckin says the $1.5 million in CRC-P funding, to be matched by the partner organisations and in-kind, would propel the company’s innovative approach to finding real-world applications for graphene.

“The success in the fourth round of the CRC-P funding demonstrates the high regard in which the company’s research efforts are held,” Mr McGuckin said.

“It also shows the robustness of the programs designed by FGR’s university partners.”

First published by Flinders University, 12 December 2017

Image: By AlexanderAlUS – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11294534

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