Alice Llewellyn, University College London

Alice Llewellyn, research associate at University College London, on a Faraday Institution seed project applying operando pair distribution function computer tomography (PDF-CT) to study materials in next-generation batteries

Tell us about your research

I recently started a new postdoc role in the Faraday Institution seed project, applying the new operando pair distribution function computer tomography (PDF-CT) technique to study materials in next-generation batteries. Next-generation batteries with improved energy densities will use non-crystalline active materials or contain amorphous or semi-crystalline phases at some point in their charge/discharge cycle. This technique allows us to investigate these materials via atomic mapping of working cells, to better understand and improve them. The project started in mid-June 2022, so we are still in our planning phase, but we have some experiments at synchrotrons lined up.

I am still finishing off my PhD as part of the Faraday Institution Degradation project. There I used multiscale diffraction techniques to understand how crystalline phases change at different length scales inside a battery cathode material during cycling and across their lifetime. I have been investigating the lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide (NMC) cathode, which has a layered structure with layers of transition metal oxides separated by layers of lithium. When you charge or discharge the battery, the lithium ions move in and out from the layers. We can use diffraction to study the structure and how it changes during cycling, which is important for understanding why batteries fail or their capacity declines.

How do you describe why your work is important to non-specialists?

Our PDF-CT technique is used to study battery materials in detail at the microscale and nanoscale. Understanding dynamics at this scale allows us to understand how a battery is performing overall and improve issues like capacity fade and short lifetime. This understanding of battery degradation could allow us to find ways of preventing it.

How did you get into battery research?

I did an integrated master’s at the University of St Andrews. My master’s project happened to be in batteries, and I loved it! I loved how relevant to real-life applications battery research is. So I decided I wanted to do a PhD in battery science and moved to London, and here I am!

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Aerial view of SOLEIL synchrotron

SOLEIL synchrotron near Paris, France
Credit: C. Kermarrec, distributed under CC-BY-SA-4.0,3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0

A lot of my work is done at national facilities like synchrotrons. I have carried out experiments in the UK and France and have some coming up in the United States of America. When I started, I saw other people carrying out experiments on this type of equipment and found it very daunting. I am proud of how far I have come in terms of being able to plan and carry out these challenging experiments. I’m incredibly excited about my upcoming trip to Chicago, to a synchrotron to do Bragg coherent diffraction imaging, which can be used to obtain 3D images of crystalline nanomaterials.

What is a highlight of your career to date or the aspect that gives you greatest job satisfaction?

I presented my PhD research at a conference in Vancouver, which was a lovely way of rounding off my four years as a PhD student.

Alice Llewellyn with three others standing in front of a stand with props, wearing UCell t-shirts with a UCell: Powered by Hydrogen banner

Credit: UCell, UCL

I have also loved being involved in many outreach projects, which gives me enormous job satisfaction. I recently did a talk on the future of energy storage for Pint of Science, a festival which gives researchers the platform to communicate their research to the public in a local pub or café. It was my first time talking about my research on stage. It was a much more casual setting to academic conferences! I have also been involved in UCell, a UCL-based electrochemical outreach group. We present to schools with hands-on experiments, which get the kids, and by extension the parents, interested in battery research. We have a stand at the Green Man music festival in Wales each year and show off our hydrogen fuel cell. It’s great to talk to loads of members of the public, and it’s easy to get people interested in the topic because it’s relevant and relatable to everyone.

What opportunities has being part of the Faraday Institution opened up for you?

Being part of a national project has allowed us access to an extensive network of researchers to collaborate with. For example, we have shared resources, such as beamtimes with researchers from the University of Cambridge and diffraction experiments in the excellent diffraction systems at the University of Manchester.

What are the biggest challenges you have overcome in your career and how have you gone about doing so?

When I first started, I was really daunted by the idea of having to find something novel and new in such a large field. But once I started doing my own experiments and kept up with the literature, I found it was easy to find things to study because it’s such a dynamic field.

I have always struggled to be confident in my abilities. It is easy for people to assume that everyone else knows so much more, but that’s not the case. I am much more confident than I was when I started my PhD, though of course I still struggle with it sometimes. Over time I have learned that it’s important to talk to people when you’re not sure about something and it’s usually a rewarding experience.

What advice would you have liked to have given your younger self starting out on your career?

If you don’t know something, that’s completely fine! You can always ask questions, and people tend to be nice when you do.

What are your career aspirations?

For now, I am really excited to be part of the seed project. I am hoping the technique we are developing for operando battery studies will be successful and we can carry the project on beyond our initial 12 months. In the future, I’d like to stay within the battery space, but I am not sure if that will be in academia or industry.

What is your favourite battery-related fact?

You can make battery materials out of almost anything! I have just been involved in writing a review paper on using cannabis in battery anodes, published in Elsevier’s journal Current Opinion on Electrochemistry. Cannabis can be turned into graphite by grinding it up and putting it in a furnace for a few days, then cast onto copper and used as an anode. Though sourcing materials in creative ways like this is in its early days, it could be beneficial for obtaining sustainable battery materials in future. Cannabis is particularly useful as it is easy to grow and source.

If someone wants to find out more about your research, where would you point them to?

I wrote a review paper on using in-situ laboratory and synchrotron-based x-ray diffraction for lithium-ion batteries characterisation, published in MDPI’s journal Condensed Matter.

 

Connect with Alice on LinkedIn

 

Published September 2022.

 

About the author: Cara Burke is the Faraday Institution’s Science Communications Intern in the summer of 2022. She has just completed her BSc Biological Sciences degree at Imperial College London and is pursuing a career in science communications.

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