Dr. Na, who played a major part in designing the technology, discusses its huge potential with Electronics Point.
A growing number of companies and institutions worldwide are now trying to develop more sustainable technological tools, to face the crucial environmental challenges of our era. One of the many components of electronic devices that is still far from being fully-sustainable is battery technology.
Several researchers have developed alternatives to batteries that can generate electricity using clean energy sources, such as solar or wind energy. Until these technologies become widely adopted, however, batteries will most likely remain the primary power source for many existing devices, ranging from smartphones to electric vehicles.
Unfortunately, most existing battery technologies rely on the use of heavy metals, which means that they pose significant environmental and humanitarian risks. This is especially true for cobalt, mostly found in central Africa, which has often been associated with unsafe and exploitative extraction practices.
IBM Research has been conducting research in the field of materials science for several decades now, with the objective of developing more sustainable and efficient solutions to power a wide range of electronic devices. These studies recently culminated in the development of a new battery technology that could help to make the current energy infrastructure sustainable long-term.
Instead of using metals such as nickel or cobalt, this new technology is based on a chemical process involving three new proprietary materials, which have never been recorded as being combined in a battery before. These three materials can be extracted from seawater, with far less invasive sourcing techniques than those used to extract cobalt and other heavy metals.
In addition to being far more sustainable than current lithium-based batteries, the new technology introduced by IBM was found to achieve remarkable performances. Initial tests suggest that it could outperform lithium-ion batteries in several different ways, for instance enabling lower production costs, faster charging times, higher power and energy densities, remarkable energy-efficiencies, and low flammability.
Dr. Young-Hye Na, manager of the ‘Materials Innovations for Next Generation Batteries’ group at IBM’s Research Center in Almaden, is one of the scientists who devised the new battery technology. In this interview with Electronics Point, she explains how her team made this important discovery, highlighting the unique qualities of their design and its possible implementations.
Dr. Young Hye Na. Manager of Materials Innovations for Next Gen Batteries at IBM.
Ingrid Fadelli: Could you tell us a little bit about your academic and professional background?
Dr. Young-Hye Na: I received my PhD in Chemistry from POSTECH (Pohang University of Science and Technology, in South Korea), and then carried out postdoctoral research within the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My expertise lies in surface chemistry, materials science, and nanotechnology, with a focus on developing functional materials for various applications, including, but not limited to, semiconductors, water treatment membranes, and energy storage devices (i.e., next-generation batteries). I have been working at IBM Research -Almaden for twelve years now. Since I first started I have been involved in a variety of interesting projects, aimed at developing several different technologies. I am now in a leadership position, managing the company’s energy storage research.
IF: What is your role at IBM and how were you involved in developing the new battery technology?
YN: I am currently managing the research group dedicated to Materials and Process Innovations for Next-Gen Batteries. Since I took over the project’s leadership in 2016, I have worked closely with the research team to come up with innovative solutions to overcome critical challenges associated with conventional battery technologies and develop strong IP (intellectual property).
The new battery chemistry with heavy metal-free cathodes is one of the most fascinating outcomes of these team efforts. Together with IBM Research’s business development team, I have also established a collaborative R&D ecosystem that could accelerate the development of the new battery technology. Partnerships are the key to moving our research innovation from the lab to the market.
IF: Could you please describe how the new battery technology you developed at IBM works, in as technical a manner as possible?
YN: The new battery design we developed uses lithium iodide as an active cathode material. The overall combination of this cathode material with a new and proprietary electrolyte formulation makes this battery system unique, setting it apart from other metal iodide batteries. The new battery’s chemistry and design results in outstanding performance.
IF: From a technical perspective, how did your research team develop the technology? What tools, equipment, and strategies did you use?
YN: We were exploring novel catalysts for improved batteries when one of our researchers, lead scientist Dr. Jangwoo Kim, discovered that a particular catalyst mixed with other unusual components (including the iodine-based cathode material) produced an almost magical and highly synergistic result, enabling a tremendous enhancement in the battery’s performance. We never expected the result to be this good.
IF: What needs of the engineering industry does this battery innovation meet and what problems does it attempt to solve for battery technology sustainability?
YN: Depletion of critical raw materials, including heavy metals such as nickel and cobalt, is a significant concern in the current lithium-ion battery industry, along with the fire hazard associated with the use of flammable electrolytes. We wanted to develop a unique battery chemistry using sustainable materials, to dramatically lower fabrication costs, while also improving performance and safety.
IF: How, specifically, does this new battery design surpass current battery technologies?
YN: Our new battery design uses an iodine-based cathode material, as well as a safe liquid electrolyte with a high flash point. This unique combination of the battery’s cathode and electrolyte surpassed conventional lithium-ion batteries in a number of ways, leading to a faster charging time, higher power density, strong energy-efficiency, and low flammability.
IF: What optimizations did your team implement with the intention to outperform lithium-ion batteries?
YN: The overall combination of the iodine-based cathode material with a new and proprietary electrolyte formulation, including a reaction mediator (catalyst), makes this new battery system stand out from other conventional batteries, resulting in its outstanding performance. Our initial efforts were primarily focused on understanding fundamental chemical mechanisms and the properties of the materials we used, as well as exploring the battery’s unique electrolyte formulation. To date, we haven’t gone through the intense optimization of this battery on a system level yet – this will be the next step to approach in collaboration with our R&D ecosystem partners.
IF: What plans do you have for furthering this technology? How can it be improved further?
YN: Our plan is to move the new battery from early-stage exploratory research to pilot-scale development this year. Our R&D ecosystem will play an important role at this stage of development. We plan to carry out an optimization of all component materials, to meet target specifications and industrial standards for battery applications. As part of our Materials Discovery program, we have also used an artificial intelligence (AI) technique called semantic enrichment to further improve the battery’s performance, by identifying safer and higher performance materials.
IF: What were the initial inspirations and motivations behind IBM pursuing a new solution for battery technologies specifically?
YN: IBM has a deep interest in understanding how computing can drive innovation on many fronts. To this end, we have several use cases under an initiative called Future of Computing and one example of this is Materials Discovery. At IBM Research- Almaden, we specifically selected energy storage as a field of study for materials innovation. Our work in this field is what ultimately inspired the development of new battery technologies.
IF: What was the main goal or intention behind the innovation?
YN: Our original aim was to leverage our materials science capabilities to develop a groundbreaking battery technology. We now hope to use the unique chemistry and sustainable materials set in the new battery to dramatically lower the cost of fabricating battery technologies, while improving their performance and safety.
IF: Who will you be working with to move this technology forward, and why did IBM Research chose certain partners?
YN: We are currently working with Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America, Central Glass (CG, one of the top battery electrolyte suppliers in the world, based in Japan) and Sidus (a new Silicon Valley startup that manufactures batteries, to accelerate the transition of our technology from the lab to the marketplace. We are really focused on accelerating the process of shifting from research to product development and we feel that this will require an ecosystem approach.
Mercedes Benz can provide a vision for battery use and requirements in electrical transportation, while CG can help us to improve electrolyte formulation with a focus on performance, safety and manufacturability at scale. Battery manufacturer Sidus, on the other hand, is going to validate our battery technology on a pilot-scale and hopefully take it to market.
While the new battery design created at IBM Research is very promising, it will need to undergo a number of additional tests before it can be placed on the market. IBM’s ongoing collaboration with Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America, electrolyte supplier Center Glass, and battery manufacturer Sidus, could ultimately advance the technology from the early research stage at which it is now to its commercial release.