The importance of batteries for the energy transition cannot be underestimated. High-performing electricity storage systems are a key enabling technology for the further deployment of renewable energy and for a more sustainable society. VITO/EnergyVille is working on battery technologies of the future, across various system generations.​

In 2017, VITO/EnergyVille started research into materials for new battery technologies. In the meantime, this strategic research track has gained momentum, with the first patent applications and the publication of the first scientific papers in 2020. 

The battery research fits perfectly into the ambition formulated by the European Union in 2020 to become climate-neutral by 2050, known as the Green Deal. ‘Energy storage is crucial for making the transition to renewable energy and for achieving zero-emission mobility,’ says Annick Vanhulsel of VITO/EnergyVille. Europe is fully committed to the development of new battery technologies through a range of initiatives to reinforce its position. The production of today's batteries (for electric cars, for example), as well as the R&D for new technologies, is nowadays largely situated in Asia. ‘Based on the Green Deal and the BATTERY 2030+ strategic research agenda, the EU is aiming to establish a strong innovation climate to boost a competitive and circular European battery value chain, with a focus on more sustainable batteries. This ties in nicely with what we have been doing at VITO/EnergyVille since 2017.’ 

Across battery generations 

The strength of VITO/EnergyVille's battery expertise lies in the surface properties of materials. ‘We're working on both the cathode and the anode,’ continues Dirk Vangeneugden of VITO/EnergyVille. ‘After all, it's at the interface between the materials that the crucial electron and/or ion transport takes place. By optimising these surfaces and their interaction with the electrolyte (the liquid or solid substance that enables the transport of ions), we're improving essential characteristics such as energy density and battery life.’ The research is quite fundamental, so new developments in materials can boost various battery technologies. ‘That's how we improve battery performance across generations, from lithium ion through solid state to lithium-sulfur and post-lithium ion batteries.’ 

The lithium-sulfur battery is an example of next-generation battery technology that is still in the research phase. It has great potential: not only are lithium-sulfur batteries only half as heavy as the best lithium ion batteries (with the same energy storage capacity), they can also be produced more cheaply thanks to the almost unlimited sulfur reserves available worldwide. Unfortunately, the lifespan for this type of battery is still too short, which means that the capacity decreases significantly after only a few hundred charge and discharge cycles. VITO/EnergyVille is working on solutions. Vanhulsel: ‘Among other things, we are looking for a new composition for both the lithium and the sulfur electrodes in order to improve the energy density and lifetime.’. In collaboration with the University of Hasselt, a doctoral project on this specific topic is now about halfway. VITO/EnergyVille is also collaborating with international partners in its research into lithium-sulfur batteries, for instance the Spanish scientific institute CIDETEC, which is one of Europe’s leading  research centres in battery energy storage. 

Lithium-sulfur battery will be used first and foremost in lightweight applications such as drones and (later) electric aircrafts. ‘The action radius  and the carrying capacity of drones is still limited by the heavy batteries they have to carry,’ says Vangeneugden. ‘Strongly growing sectors, such as those of the parcel delivery industry, are looking out for lightweight, high-performance batteries. But we can also see other mobile applications where the lifespan (in the number of charging cycles) is not of prime importance, such as electric bicycles, for example.’ 

Drones and bicycles are not the only sectors where better batteries could help accelerate growth. Others include the development of home batteries for storing electricity produced by solar panels – and, of course, electric cars (and other electrically powered transport) with a longer driving range. Large, stationary battery clusters for temporary storage of renewable energy and stabilisation of the electricity network are another area. Vangeneugden: ‘With the ever-increasing share of renewable resources, this battery application is becoming ever more important.’ 

Inter-cluster technology 

For those still in doubt, the role of batteries in the energy transition cannot be underestimated. ‘They are a key enabling technology, and in the coming years and decades there will be a huge need for batteries,’ predicts Vangeneugden. ‘What's more, the various technologies still have huge potential for improvement.’ Logically, therefore, it is of great economic and, consequently, strategic importance. ‘This is why, when developing new technologies, we are careful to use as few critical materials as possible, for example rare materials (such as cobalt) or materials that have a high (e.g. geopolitical) risk associated with their supply. 

Europe is firmly committed to the development of better, more sustainable and cheaper battery technologies. One way of achieving this is through the recently launched Batteries European Partnership Association, of which VITO/EnergyVille is also a member. ‘That's how we fit into the broader European picture,’ says Vanhulsel. But there is also a Flemish story, with a brand-new battery programme being initiated by the Flemish spearhead cluster on innovative materials research (SIM). VITO/EnergyVille is active in this as well. ‘The Flemish battery research is a nice example of an interdisciplinary ecosystem. Batteries bring together materials, energy and chemistry, which means that the spearhead clusters on energy technology (Flux50) and sustainable chemistry (Catalisti) are closely involved too. So we're talking about a real inter-cluster technology.’ 

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