Manel Sonni, University of Liverpool
Manel Sonni, research associate at the University of Liverpool, is developing novel cathode materials to improve battery performance as part of the CATMAT project
Tell us about your research
I develop novel battery cathode materials as part of the Faraday Institution’s CATMAT project. I synthetize new materials, determine their structure and perform other characterizations such as Raman, magnetism and NMR spectroscopy, and carry out electrochemical tests to see if they would work as battery materials.
We develop new cathode materials either by tweaking currently used materials with the aim of improving performance and avoiding current issues or testing materials that have never been tried as cathodes. For example, most research in CATMAT currently involves doping NMC cathodes – cathodes made with a combination of lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt – with other elements that may stabilise the material and improve battery cyclability and performance. We can also start from scratch with brand-new materials. To increase the likelihood of success, and as studying a completely new material could fail, we can choose to test materials similar in structure to those already used in cathodes but with different elements that could improve battery performance.
How do you describe why your work is important to non-specialists?
Our goal is to find cheaper, more environmentally friendly cathode materials with improved performance and stability. Batteries are widely used as high-energy sources for applications ranging from cell phones to electric vehicles. Their use will increase, especially with the UK government’s goal to end the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030. Batteries are essential, and their improvement will help their widespread use.
How did you get into battery research?
Mostly by luck! My background is in developing new materials but joining the CATMAT project introduced me to battery research for the first time. I did a PhD between the University of Mathematical, Physical and Natural Sciences of Tunis, in Tunisia and the Laboratory of Electrochemistry and Physical-Chemistry of Materials and Interfaces of the Grenoble Institute of Technology. During my PhD, I was working on the development of new crystalline materials and the study of their physicochemical properties (electrical, magnetic, etc) and their ionic conductivities and alkali-ion migration pathways, which are relevant to my current project. Battery materials need both ionic and electric conductivity. I knew this project was an excellent opportunity, so I applied, was accepted for the job, and moved to the UK.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Coming here and being a part of the CATMAT project is a huge accomplishment.
What is a highlight of your career to date or the aspect that gives you greatest job satisfaction?
Over the last two years, I have collaborated with many people across different universities, which has been a real highlight. From the University of Liverpool, I get preliminary analysis for materials and collaborate with the CATMAT team for electrochemical tests. When I first joined CATMAT, I collaborated with the University of Bath. They provided us with computational materials studies, which informed us which structure is most stable and helped us understand how a material changes during charge and discharge. The University of Cambridge has provided us with magnetism and NMR analysis, ISIS Neutron and Muon Source and the Diamond Light Source has provided me with synchrotron and neutron diffraction data on my samples. Different universities have come together to help inform our work with various characterisation methods. On CATMAT we also work with 12 industry partners, including Talga Technologies and William Blythe.
What are the biggest challenges you have overcome during your career, and how have you gone about doing so?
When I started my job in CATMAT, I knew very little about batteries and electrochemistry. Now, I feel confident enough to understand our project well, and potentially apply for a position involving electrochemistry in the future. When I arrived, I had to read a lot of electrochemistry literature, and it was tough to get up to speed. However, the support from my colleagues on the project really helped me gain a better understanding of our research.
What opportunities has being part of the Faraday Institution opened up for you?
The Faraday Institution has allowed me to be a part of a large and exciting project. My research group and others in the broader CATMAT project helped me get on my feet when I started my job. We often have big group meetings covering the whole of the CATMAT project. Researchers present and explain their work and allow the audience to ask questions. These presentations have really helped me to pick up battery knowledge and understanding.
In future, I’m hoping the Faraday Institution will help me to establish more connections with industry and potentially gain a permanent position somewhere.
What are your career aspirations?
Honestly? I don’t know. I do know that I want to stay in battery research. I’m open to moving on to different projects in future, but for now, I’m happy to focus on my current project and see where it takes me.
What advice would you have liked to have given your younger self starting out on your career?
I would tell her to carefully consider what experiments and research she can realistically achieve in a given timeframe. During my PhD, I didn’t think carefully enough about the characterizations I was trying for my materials, and my university did not have the equipment to characterise them fully. I should have asked others for advice to help me understand what was realistic. It’s easier to see how I could have done that in hindsight now that I have been involved in more collaborative research.
If people want to find out more about your research, where would you point them to?
My Google scholar page, where you can find all of my papers.
Connect with Manel on LinkedIn.
Published November 2022.
Banner image credit: By Phil Nash from Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
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.