Everything you did not know about modern batteries

What kinds of things inspire and drive scientists? How did they first come to be interested in science? How do they choose their research topics? Assiya Yermukhambetova, a Postdoctoral Scholar in the School of Engineering at Nazarbayev University School of Engineering addressed all of these questions in a recent interview.  

Assiya graduated from the University College London (London, UK) with Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering. Her Ph.D. topic was on the optimization and failure mechanism of Lithium Sulfur Batteries. During her Ph.D. studies at UCL Electrochemical Innovations Lab she had obtained first high-resolution tomographic study of Li Sulphur battery electrodes degradation in-situ. At present, she is a leader of Young Researchers Alliance.

– Assiya, how old were you when you became interested in energy, electrochemistry, and chemistry?

Everything started from my interest in chemistry and my desire to understand everyday phenomena: how kerosene and gasoline burn; why the burning of different substances produces various smells; why granulated sugar dissolves faster than cubes; why so many recipes in cooking use baking soda and vinegar, why and when we should add them together, etc. In the beginning, my parents answered my questions, but soon I had so many more questions that I naturally progressed to reading a lot about chemistry.

When I was in high school, I read that an American scientist claimed to have invented a fuel cell that could use water instead of gasoline for cars. Of course, Stanley Meyers’s statements were not proven, but reading that was how I learned about the electrolytic process. During my master studies in London, I saw fuel cells, which transformed chemical energy to electric. I observed them work in a sample and in a mini car, constructed by the group of students.

– Who influenced the choice of your future profession?

 It was my chemistry teacher Ridnaya Yunona Viktorovna. Right after her lessons, we started to understand the list of ingredients on boxes of detergent or cosmetics, and we were able to figure out whether they were useful or not. In addition, my mother was a veterinarian and taught for more than 25 years in S.Seifullin Kazakh Agro-Technical University.

–  The topic of your research is “Development of Lithium Sulfur battery and insight into its failure mechanism” how it can be used in everyday life?

 Lithium-sulfur batteries are the next-generation of batteries, theoretically, their energy capacity exceeds existing lithium-ion batteries by five times.  In August 2008, a solar-powered plane used this type of battery in an experiment where a record for flight length and height were achieved.  Despite these advantages, there are a number of problems which can lead to lithium-sulfur batteries becoming unstable during long-term operation, and these problems discourage mass production or use, for example, in electric vehicles.

In my research, I studied how the battery changes during operation, and what exactly affects its instability.  In my work, I applied methods of computed tomography in an innovative way that was not traditional for chemists, in order to study how the microstructure of a battery changes during operation without needing to disassemble the battery into parts.

My new research is focused on porous structures and materials, and the study of transfer processes. Understanding transference and the related phenomena is important for many processes used in industry. For example, in regards to petroleum, this work can be used to predict oil filtration.  In terms of environmental protection, research can help us find ways to control the diffusion of pollutants.   And work on membrane technologies is essential for biological and medical purposes.

– Many people are concerned about the environmental impact batteries, and because of this, there are often special places to collect and dispose of them.  Are there any alternatives to today’s batteries, and are there ways to reduce their toxicity?

 – Today, many scientists are concerned about reducing the toxicity of batteries. For example, the main problem of toxicity in regards to lithium-ion batteries is the use of organic electrolytes, which cause ignition and are toxic when opened.   Today, scientists are trying to create batteries based on aqueous electrolytes or a solid ceramic electrolyte, a fully carbon battery, or other technologies which use less “harmful” materials. All of this requires a lot of time and investment.

What can each of us do today? First, we should use batteries as directed. Salt and alkaline batteries are not suitable to discharge large currents, but they are cheap in comparison to other batteries and have a long use-life if the consumption is low – for example, when they are used in wall clocks.  Alkaline batteries are not a good choice for electronics or children’s toys – Li-ion batteries, which can also be recharged, will work better in these instances. Batteries should be stored at a proper temperature, because storing them either in too hot or too cold of an environment will reduce their service life.  Consumers should also be aware that there are different charging requirements for nickel-cadmium and lithium-ion batteries.

– Assiya, is it easy for you to be a female scientist in the field of Chemical Engineering?

– When the choice is deliberate, then all difficulties are surmountable. Choosing a specialization in my twenties, I barely understood how difficult my path would be.  However, I cannot say for sure that it was always easy or difficult for me. There are more girls enrolled in undergraduate engineering degree programs than there are women engineers, the same is seen when looking at the number of women who study science vs. those employed as scientists. As a PhD student at University College London, I was also in the minority.  This is noticeable when looking at how workspaces are arranged and noticing the lack of devices and gurneys for lifting heavy weights. The more women in our field, the faster improvements for us will be implemented.

– We often hear that funding and support should be reduced for basic research, and instead, we should prioritize projects related to applied development. What is your opinion?

– It is fundamental research that generates new knowledge. The latest UNESCO report states that funding for basic research should not be reduced, but rather increased. In the US, for example, the government finances basic research, leaving industry to take the lead in supporting applied research. In South Korea and China, they are increasing their money for fundamental science; The European Union, despite the crisis, maintains its level of commitment to support fundamental science. Science can give a competitive advantage to a country; it needs to be developed with direct investments in human capital.

Both basic research and applied research are important.  Looking around the world though, in most counties basic research is very costly.  At the same time, at the stage of applying for a grant, it is not necessary to consider and equate applied research with specific results and proof of concepts.