Today’s electric cars may be set for a revolution. Researchers in electrochemistry at Britain’s Cambridge University have made a breakthrough in the development of the lithium-air or lithium-oxygen batteries on which electric cars are reliant, with significant potential implications for costs and the future development of this market.

Working on the problems that have plagued lithium-oxygen batteries affecting both their capacity and their lifetime with issues around efficiency, safety and performance, a team led by Professor Clare Grey has created a demonstrator battery. It employs different chemistry and uses an electrode made of graphene, a form of carbon.

The research says the result is “a more stable and efficient battery.” The demonstrator relies on this highly porous, ‘fluffy’ carbon electrode made from graphene (comprising one-atom-thick sheets of carbon atoms), as well as additives that alter the chemical reactions at work in the battery.

Cambridge University’s demonstrator battery uses lithium hydroxide rather than lithium peroxide. If it proves to be commercially viable, such lithium-oxygen batteries could be the ‘ultimate super battery’: using graphene electrodes to offer high-density, more than 90 percent efficiency, and a capacity to be recharged up to 2,000 times.

“What we’ve achieved is a significant advance for this technology and suggests whole new areas for research – we haven’t solved all the problems inherent to this chemistry, but our results do show routes forward towards a practical device,” said Professor Grey. The research was covered in a paper in the journal Science.

Currently, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries dominate the market, but global research is being conducted on lithium-oxygen batteries because of their potential to store far more energy.

Cambridge research is funded by the U.K.’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council as well as the U.S. Department of Energy and the European Union (EU) via Marie Curie Actions and the Graphene Flagship. Johnson Matthey (LSE: JMAT.L), the U.K. advanced materials company, is also supporting it.

Professor Grey spent almost 20 years in the U.S., mainly at Stony Brook University in New York, before returning to the U.K. to take up a post at Cambridge. Her team at Cambridge, known as the Grey Group, carries out research in materials chemistry with a focus on battery technology. 

“We have patented the technology and the intellectual propery is ownd by Cambridge Enterprise, the university’s commercialisation arm. We are working with a number of companies to take it forward” Professor Grey said.

Before investors in electric cars get too excited – the Cambridge research team has also said that at least another decade of work is likely to be required to turn it into a commercial battery for cars, and for wider storage on the grid.

At a time when there is concern – particularly in the U.K. – on the lack of women in STEM subjects, a spotlight on the pioneering work done by Professor Grey and her team does at least, somewhat rectify the balance.

 

Dina Medland is an independent writer, editor and commentator with a strong focus on issues around corporate governance, ethics, the workings of the boardroom and sustainable business. She is on the team of contributors to @ForbesEurope and is an ex-Financial Times staff member who has been a regular contributor in recent years. Further details about her background and a portfolio of work – including her commercially sponsored blog ‘Board Talk’ are available on her website http://www.dinamedland.com