Charge of the light blue brigade

22 Feb, 2024
Tony Quested
Cambridge University brainpower is fast propelling the city to a world-leading position in the development of transformative battery technology.
Image courtesy of Nyobolt

Nyobolt is already blazing a trail with high power, ultrafast charging battery technologies, while Echion Technologies recently received a Faraday Battery Challenge funding boost.

Now it emerges that a Cavendish Laboratory researcher – Akshay Rao – has become the only Cambridge luminary in the field to be awarded an ERC Proof of Concept Grant for turning his groundbreaking battery research into tangible innovation. The grant scheme is part of the EU’s research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe.

Professor Rao is the co-founder of two companies – Cambridge Photon Technology (developing next-generation advanced materials designed to increase the performance of existing silicon solar panels) and Illumion, which develops high-throughput optical tools to accelerate battery material development through light.

Taken together, this assault on battery markets that are worth billions worldwide mark Cambridge down as a global hotspot in the arena.

The recent €150,000 ERC grant will help Professor Rao and his group bridge the gap between the results of their pioneering research on battery material development and the early phases of its commercialisation.

Battery storage is obviously recognised worldwide as key for creating a cleaner and more sustainable energy system. Scientists are working hard worldwide to make batteries better, so they can store more energy, charge faster and last longer.

“To do this, we need to understand how batteries charge and discharge, and what makes them age and wear out,” said Professor Rao, Harding Lecturer in Physics at the Cavendish.

“With our OptoBAT project, we are developing a new microscopy platform to help accelerate this understanding for both industry and academia.”

OptoBAT is based on the concept of Charge Photometry. This new technology aims at quickly and easily identifying which materials would have the best properties to reduce the effects of ageing and capacity loss in batteries.

“Charge Photometry creates a fast feedback loop between designing new materials and checking how well they perform,” said Professor Rao. “We think it could become an indispensable part of battery research and help accelerate the development of new battery technologies fit for a greener future.”

Iliana Ivanova, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, commented: “It takes courage and skill to take an idea from the lab into the world of business. The Proof of Concept grants we announced are designed to enable researchers to take this brave step and transform groundbreaking research into tangible innovations.”

Illumion revolutionises how we measure energy storage in operating batteries. By providing a new, simple and lab-based measurement platform it enables researchers to visualise energy storage processes in real time, at sub-micrometer scales, and in realistic sample environments.

This approach unlocks new possibilities for battery development and research in the pursuit of next-generation battery materials.

The Illumion board is packed with experienced specialists in the field – including Professor Clare Grey of Nyobolt as a co-founder.

Nyobolt recently achieved United Nations (UN)38.3 certification for its first two production-ready pouch cells. Start of pack production for customers in high uptime industries, where rapid recharge provides critical upgrades in efficiency of business operations, is scheduled to begin this year.

The UN38.3 certification is a prerequisite for air shipping of all lithium-based battery chemistries and is awarded only after the successful completion of rigorous environmental, electrical, and mechanical safety tests by independent test authorities before production and shipment can begin.

Nyobolt’s fast charge, high power battery cells outperform alternatives, increasing operational efficiency by dramatically reducing charging-related downtime for customers while delivering superior overall performance.

Nyobolt cells can be fully charged from 0 per cent to 100 per cent state of charge in as little as five minutes, with minimal degradation, while demonstrating superior cycle life far beyond what can be achieved in today’s lithium-ion cells.

The Nyobolt team, comprised of leading battery scientists and engineers with prior experience in designing and producing ultra high-rate batteries for Formula 1, is developing a complete fast-charge ecosystem for customers in the Industrial and Automotive sectors.

The company has ambitious plans to expand its product portfolio from its first pouch cells to include high-power battery modules, packs, and DC chargers.