Dorota Matras, research associate at the Diamond Light Source, is investigating novel cathode materials as part of the CATMAT project using synchrotron X-ray based characterisation techniques
Tell us about your research
I work on the CATMAT project investigating novel cathode materials and am based at the Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron. I primarily work at the I14 nano-imaging beamline, which provides the smallest X-ray beam size at the Diamond Light Source and which can be used to determine the composition and structure of materials on a nanoscale level. We can perform imaging experiments to assess the physical and chemical properties of materials by employing different characterisation techniques, such as X-ray diffraction to look at crystalline materials, or X-ray spectroscopy to look at oxidation states and local environments of different components in our samples.
Recently, I worked with project partners from the University of Birmingham to investigate promoted LiNiO2 cathode materials. We studied samples doped with boron and we were interested in investigating what happened to the oxidation state of nickel during charge and discharge through multiple cycles and at different voltages.
How do you explain why your work is important to non-specialists?
We will rely on batteries for energy storage as we move towards a net zero future. At CATMAT, we’re doing fundamental research to find and propose new materials that hopefully will be used in the future commercial and industrially relevant Li-ion batteries. First, we develop an understanding of which materials would be suitable for use in batteries, how they work and what can impede their long term performance.
How did you get into battery research?
During my PhD, I worked on materials characterisation of catalytic membrane reactors for methane upgrade processes. I spent around six months of my four-year PhD working in synchrotrons doing operando experiments, but it is also where I encountered battery research.
I first came across batteries in a collaboration with some colleagues from the Department of Chemistry from University College London as they were interested in applying the technique I was primarily using, X-ray diffraction computed tomography, to look at state-of-the-art anode materials for Li-ion batteries. I found these experiments fascinating, as the solid-state chemistry and structure of battery materials changed quickly, especially while using fast cycling protocols. Both catalysis and batteries are essential to reach net zero goals, but I was interested in investigating batteries further and moved into the field.
What are the biggest challenges you have overcome in your career and how have you gone about doing so?
I started my postdoc just before the Covid-19 pandemic, so I spent around a week working in the office before the country went into lockdown. I was transitioning to a new career in batteries, and the plan had been to train and collaborate with other people, which was suddenly no longer possible. Without knowing anyone, it was hard to ask the necessary questions to pick up essential skills and understanding. However, my line manager Paul Quinn, was very supportive. He introduced me to scientists and users at the synchrotron, and those connections allowed me to seek help and sped up my progress.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I am most proud of an experiment that we designed and carried out remotely during lockdown – imaging for the first time an 18650 Li-ion battery with chemical contrast during electrochemical cycling. We did this experiment at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, whilst sitting at home in England! It was very successful and we published our results in Elsevier’s Journal of Power Sources. This experience was equally one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve done!
What is a highlight of your career to date or the aspect that gives you the greatest job satisfaction?
Being able to collaborate with people on a big project is very rewarding. For example I have visited partners from University College London and the Universities of Oxford and Birmingham, to use their equipment and being able to work in these labs was crucial for my research.
What opportunities has being part of the Faraday Institution opened up for you?
I took part in the EMPOWER Women programme led by Skills 4, where I got to meet like-minded women from across a range of projects and universities. We shared our experiences and aspirations. It has been wonderful to follow them on social media and see how their careers are progressing in line with their goals. I have seen the real impact that this programme has had on their confidence and careers.
I have also recently joined the Faraday Institution Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) working group, which has allowed me to better understand how to create equal opportunities for all. Our meetings have opened my eyes to how other people’s circumstances differ from my own. We have discussed the problems people face because of discrimination against their ethnicity, nationality and gender, among other things. As part of this group, we come up with ways to make our research environment more inclusive, for example by making changes in how we conduct recruitment processes.
What are your career aspirations?
One week I have a solid, thought-out plan for my future, and by the following week I’ll have a completely different plan! What I do will depend on the opportunities that come my way. However, I would like to steer my career towards more industry-relevant materials research to gain a better understanding of the challenges that the battery industry faces at the device level.
What advice would you have liked to have given your younger self starting out on your career?
Try to be as open and collaborative as possible, as we learn so much from other people.
What is your favourite battery-related fact?
Lithium-ion batteries are as old as I am (the first commercial lithium-ion battery was released in 1991), and nowadays we use them in everything, but as a society we have only recently truly realised their importance! I remember during my Bachelors in Engineering at the Warsaw University of Technology in Poland, no one wanted to study batteries for their final project. I doubt that would be the case today.
Published November 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.