Shaping our world with smart materials

Featured: Safe batteries with an energy boost

Better energy storage thanks to research in material science

Material science plays a central role in the search for better energy storage options. At the NanoLab of the University of Twente’s MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology, Mark Huijben and other scientists and students look for technological breakthroughs by studying and designing new materials at nanoscale. One such breakthrough is the solid-state battery. ‘In conventional batteries, two poles – the anode and the cathode – are joined by a liquid, the electrolyte,’ Huijben explains. ‘Replacing the liquid with a solid yields a higher energy density and more power. One reason for this is that a solid-state battery does not require cooling or protective elements, as the solid cannot leak and is harmless and insensitive to overheating. The result is that there is more room for storage.'

The premier league of the battery world

In the industry the solid-state lithium-ion battery is already seen as the safe, powerful, sustainable battery of the future. The work of Huijben and his team has placed the UT in the premier division of the battery world: the European research institute Alistore, a collaboration of top researchers in the field of batteries. Huijben: ‘Our expertise at the MESA+ Institute is that we combine mathematics, physics and chemistry in fundamental nanomaterial research. The facilities at the Nanolab are essential for our research. Here we can build up new materials atom by atom. This control enables us to design smartly and improve material performance. This has meant that we can apply the solid in a battery very precisely for optimum conductivity. By combining this expertise with other players in the world of energy storage, like the Technical University of Delft and the University of Münster and Forschungszentrum Julich in Germany, we expect to be able to take some big steps forward in the coming years. A battery that you can recharge a thousand times instead of only a hundred, without reducing energy capacity, is no longer unthinkable.’

Mostly small-scale applications

Industrial interest in better batteries is big, according to Huijben. ‘At the moment we are carrying out research in the area of smaller battery applications. This is partly because at this point the production of solid-state batteries is complex. Our focus is on small-scale, high-end applications, for which the battery needs to have a higher energy density and must stay in place for a long time without being replaced. Think of batteries in sensors for Internet of Things solutions, or in small medical devices. When we’ve developed that an get to start up-scaling, we can begin to think about larger applications, such as car batteries.’

PROF. DR. IR. MARK HUIJBEN M. Huijben (Mark)
Associate professor for ‘Nanomaterial for Energy Conversion & Storage’, Faculty of Science and Technology, University of Twente | Scientific director of research programme ‘Storage and conversion of renewable energy’, MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology

‘After studying Natural Sciences at the University of Twente, I did a couple of years research at the University of California, Berkeley. I had a strong personal interest in controlling materials on various scales and wanted to do something innovative, contributing to a breakthrough on an important social issue. Energy is one such issue. Back at Twente, my research builds a bridge between fundamental research and practical applications with the hopes of adding my bit to renewable energy. I enjoy my work: every day I can come up with and manufacture the craziest combinations of materials – and in this way make discoveries that may be very important for us and our children.’