Neutron scattering: New ways to ‘see’ inside batteries in action

Exploring the frontiers of battery innovation, this project funded by CBI's Technical Program focused on developing and optimizing neutron scattering techniques for lead batteries. In this interview, Dr. Begüm Bozkaya, CBI's Technical Manager, explains how this advanced method provides deeper insights into battery performance and discusses its potential to improve energy storage systems.

To start, could you give us an overview of the project and the main goals you're aiming to achieve?

This project aimed to develop and optimize a new characterization technique, neutron scattering, for lead batteries to better understand certain processes in electrodes related to energy storage system (ESS) applications. The main goal was to observe the charge and discharge processes of industrial electrodes by neutron scattering experiments while lead batteries are actively operating.

For those of us who aren't scientists, could you explain what neutron scattering is and why it could be a breakthrough method for improving the performance of lead batteries?

Sure, I'll break it down. Think of neutron scattering as something similar to X-rays, which we know well from medical uses. X-rays provide information about a material based on the interaction of X-rays and electrons with matter. However, X-rays have limited penetration depth. Therefore, they work well for small samples but not for larger ones.

Neutrons, on the other hand, penetrate much deeper into matter, making them ideal for analyzing larger samples like industrial lead battery electrodes. This allows scientists to investigate large samples in real operating conditions without disassembling batteries or cells. It's important to note that both X-ray and neutron techniques are excellent and complement each other well.

The project pioneered new ways to 'see' inside batteries in action, which sounds quite extraordinary. How might these innovations change our understanding of lead batteries?

Indeed, it is quite extraordinary! Thanks to the high sensitivity of neutron diffraction, we can study and analyze different phases of electrodes without disassembling lead cells. This means we can conduct analysis during battery operation, providing more accurate and real-time insights.

How do you envision the findings from this project impacting the way we use batteries on a daily basis, especially when it comes to energy storage?

The results of this project could significantly benefit experts in universities and industry by optimizing lead batteries for energy storage systems. Although the focus is on analyzing positive plates, which often limit performance in ESS applications, this technique can also be adjusted for negative plates and used for various applications, such as auxiliary and motive power.

The push for greener energy is more urgent than ever. How could the project's findings contribute to the development of more sustainable and eco-friendly energy usage?

Typically, analyzing batteries in laboratories requires disassembly to examine individual components such as electrodes. In this project, the project team has developed a cell setup that allows us to analyze electrodes without disassembly. This eliminates the need for extra chemicals to wash electrodes and skips time-consuming steps like cutting and drying for analysis, contributing to more sustainable practices.

Collaboration between academia and industry is often celebrated for its ability to drive innovation. How has this partnership shaped the project?

It's been a great collaboration. A PhD student from INMA has been involved in this project, demonstrating that such innovative projects are valuable in both academic and industrial settings. Encouraging young scientists to take active roles in these projects, with guidance from industry experts, is crucial for continued innovation.

With the project finalized, what are the next steps you and the team are excited about?

We're very excited about the future! The project team has shown that volume gauge neutron diffraction can obtain meaningful information about the structural phases of electrodes without stopping cell operation. The next steps involve optimizing this technique further to perform faster measurements with better resolution.

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