Science Vale firms surge ahead to drive battery technology forward

“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” – Edward N. Lorenz

Edward Lorenz’s idea that small events, like the flap of a butterfly’s wing may have large effects, might just give a clue to how science could crack a global problem.  Could it be that one small technological change holds the key to resolving our energy crisis and finally cuts us free from our reliance on fossil fuels?

This is the latest challenge facing the UK’s leading technology firms and academics.  They are joining forces to build the next generation of battery technology, strengthen the growing interest in electric transport and find different, creative ways to realise the potential of energy storage provision on an industrial scale.

The catalyst for this new joint working has been the creation of the Faraday Institute, whose headquarters will be based at Harwell Campus, Science Vale.  This new independent, national institute for battery research aims to keep the UK at the forefront of novel battery technology and is backed by government, with a £246 million investment from their Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

The Faraday Battery Challenge
Over a four-year period, the institute will allocate funds from its £65 million core budget, to an industry-led training programme.  It will support original projects by the UK’s most enterprising science and engineering firms into the research, manufacture, testing and eventually the roll-out, of cutting-edge battery technology products.  Dubbed “The Faraday Battery Challenge’, the first four projects will focus on:

  • Ways of mitigating degradation processes to extend battery life.
  • Designing better battery systems using multi-scale modelling.
  • Using solid-state batteries to extend electric vehicle driving time.
  • Creating a sustainable industry focusing on recycling and recharging.

Flying the flag in Science Vale
The Faraday Institute has chosen Harwell Campus to base its flagship headquarters in.  This location enables it to take advantage of the expertise and potential partnerships with world-class research facilities such as the Diamond Light Source, the ISIS Neutron and Muon Facility.

The institute is also expected to build on Science Vale’s strong history of innovation.  Its presence will give a further boost to the ambitions of nearby start-ups testing next generation battery technologies, such as Oxis Energy and Zap&Go – both making huge leaps forward with their new product ranges.

In pursuit of better performance and energy-efficiency, leading technology firms are finding new ways to fine-tune battery parts.  Some are re-engineering the electrodes, testing cathodes containing different quantities of cobalt, manganese, nickel and aluminium, or adding new materials to the anode, such as silicon and graphite.  Others are bucking the trend for metal-oxygen combination batteries, such as zinc-air and aluminium-air, or developing new lithium-metal blends.

Their tests not only focus on a battery’s energy density and voltage, but also assess its weight, safety and performance in extreme conditions, energy storage, cost and if it can be recharged easily.

One company taking battery development to a higher level is Culham Science Centre based Oxis Energy, who are emerging as a leader in developing lithium-sulfur cells for battery systems.  Because these cells are so lightweight, able to withstand low temperatures and different pressurised environments safely, this has led to some exciting new collaborations for the company.  This includes trials with NASA to test their cells in drones, high altitude aircraft and becoming part of a consortium with Steatite, MSubs and the National Oceanography Centre to power a remotely operated underwater vehicle to ocean depths of more than 6,000 metres.

Similarly, Science Vale tech firm Zap&Go, have developed a hybrid system using carbon-ion technology to provide fast charging rates for lithium-ion batteries.  Following successful trials that saw consumer goods charging times rapidly reduced, Zap&Go hopes to test their technology further during 2018, in electric vehicle charging pods at Heathrow Terminal 5 and across London as part of the Greenwich GATEWAY project.  Later they plan to manufacture more efficient batteries for the electric vehicles themselves.

If, as the proverb goes, ‘fortune favours the brave’, then now is the time for the UK’s science community to take a courageous giant leap forward and take advantage of this new battery challenge.  It’s a golden opportunity for science to set its sights high and advance battery technology to help future generations by making renewable energy a feasible and reliable option.  The future definitely looks set to be battery-powered.