Chunhong Lei, research associate at the University of Leicester developing a novel delamination technique as part of the ReLiB project to return high-purity materials to new battery manufacture
Tell us about your research
I research the recycling and reuse of electric vehicle lithium-ion batteries as part of the Faraday Institution’s ReLiB project. My group developed a pioneering delamination method that uses high-powered, focussed ultrasonic waves to separate materials from electrodes. We use it to obtain lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, copper and aluminium for reuse. This method is 100 times faster than current separation methods and leads to higher purity of recovered materials. Current delamination recycling techniques use concentrated acids in a batch immersion process, whereas ultrasonic delamination is a continuous feed process that uses water or dilute acids as a solvent, making it greener and less expensive. Most lithium-ion battery recycling methods involve shredding batteries and a complex set of physical and chemical separation processes which are energy-intrusive and inefficient. Disassembling the batteries instead provides more potential to recover the material, with 80% of the original material recovered in a purer state than was possible using shredded material.
How do you describe why your work is important to non-specialists?
Our work is new and critical as lithium-ion batteries become more widespread. They’re already commonly used in computers and mobile phones but will be used on a much larger scale in electric vehicles. One electric family car contains nearly 1 tonne of battery. Millions of tonnes of such battery units will reach their end of life in the next 10 years. They contain materials that are harmful to the environment and human health if not recycled and treated appropriately. Furthermore, many battery materials are valuable limited resources, and if we can find economical recycling methods it would enable their reuse in future battery manufacture. Recycling batteries is essential for creating a circular economy for battery raw materials.
How did you get into battery research?
I did my bachelor’s degree in Physics at Yunnan University in China, followed by a PhD at Cardiff University in conductive polymers. After that, I went on to projects related to electrochemistry. In recent years, lithium-ion battery research and development has become a hot topic, with governments starting to focus more on green energy to reduce carbon emissions and global warming. So, I tried to find work in this area, and I landed my current research associate position at the University of Leicester in 2017.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I designed and set up an ultrasonic delamination system with my colleagues from Leicester, Birmingham and Swansea. We started this project in August of 2019 and developed an efficient working system within a year. It was tough to do during the Covid-19 pandemic. We couldn’t meet face-to-face to exchange ideas or conduct research. We worked around the lockdown by having weekly online meetings and a major project meeting every three months, and we exchanged software between our colleagues and partners online. We were also lucky enough to start working in the lab early, from August 2020. The team I work with was highly commended in the Faraday Institution’s Collaboration Award in 2021, and the judges commented that my collaborators and I demonstrated excellence in collaborative working resulting in truly innovative technology. I was thrilled we were recognised for our accomplishments.
What is a highlight of your career to date or the aspect that gives you greatest job satisfaction?
I love doing hands-on work in the lab. The Faraday Institution and my line managers, Professor Andrew Abbott and Professor Karl Ryder, support my ideas and help me achieve my goals.
What opportunities has being part of the Faraday Institution opened up for you?
I have a wider connection with scientists and experts from universities and industries. The Faraday Institution has also provided training courses that have been valuable for my career development. They offer training courses on a range of topics, including soft skills like communication, interview skills, and leadership and management.
What are the biggest challenges you have overcome in your career and how have you gone about doing so?
What we’re working on is very new, which is both exciting and challenging. We’re hoping to scale up our research for large-scale industrial applications, which will be tough. Luckily, with the help of our strong network of researchers, we have gotten good results so far and are on target to achieve the aims of our project. We’ve started a project, in collaboration with a major OEM, evaluating the industrial application of our technology.
What are your career aspirations?
I am very keen to keep doing what I’m doing! I have enjoyed my leadership and management training and in the future I hope to start managing projects as my experience and skills increase. My current position is fixed term, and once my team have achieved our aims we will move on to other projects. Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities within battery research.
What advice would you have liked to have given to your younger self starting out on your career?
I’d say to be sure you’re interested in what you’re doing and willing to work hard! As with any role, sometimes you will find your work dull, especially with long lonely hours in a lab. You must be motivated and interested in your research to keep going. You’ll save time by carefully considering what you’re interested in early, so you don’t find yourself trying to switch careers later in life. Listen to advice from your teachers and parents to help you choose the subject and direction you’d like to pursue.
What is your favourite battery-related fact?
The most exciting thing about batteries is you can make one yourself and use it in a small personal electronic device! I’ve made a battery that can light up a lightbulb. It is great fun showing my friends that I’ve made a working battery.
If people want to find out more about your research, where would you point them to?
Published August 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.