Paul Connor, Industry Fellow at the University of St Andrews is developing negative electrode materials to improve the capacity and lifespan of lithium-ion batteries, and collaborating with AMTE Power to strengthen the pathway from laboratory to cell production
Tell us about your research
My research involves processing and developing negative electrode materials for lithium-ion batteries. For example, I have looked at incorporating titanate into the system to allow batteries to charge faster. Over the years I have looked at alloying and conversion of negative electrodes, as well as doping various titanate materials. Studying these electrodes with spectroscopic methods to better understand the chemistry is my favourite modus operandi. I have also looked at the electrode formulations and structures of positive electrodes too.
I recently helped to develop a large dry room on the Eden campus at the University of St Andrews, which we’re aiming to open in the autumn of 2022. This is a prototype development facility where researchers from other universities and industry can come in and test their battery materials. The dry room will allow us to make pouch cells in commercial sizes, but small numbers. We are set up to do almost all the processing under dry conditions, which will assist in developing sodium-ion cells, especially those coming out of the Faraday Institution NEXGENNA project.
How would you describe why your work is important to non-specialists?
When people ask me what I do, I ask them in return: “Does your phone battery last long enough?”
That’s what I am trying to improve. So, we need to develop new materials for batteries to either have more capacity and/or last longer. Batteries today are basically only kinetically stable, which means they are always dying, just sometimes slower and other times faster. This happens whether they’re being used or left alone on a shelf. We’re looking at materials that are potentially more stable and allow the battery to last longer. We’re working with AMTE Power to help get battery materials from the lab to cell production. AMTE Power is one of very few companies in the UK that make commercial-scale cells. They need a smaller scale test facility to allow new chemistries to be tested and brought to market sooner.
How did you get into battery research?
I did a PhD in electrochemistry at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, following on from undergraduate degrees in chemistry and physics. After my PhD, I had to look overseas for a job. All the jobs going were in batteries. I was lucky enough to get this one at St Andrews, and I am still here researching batteries 23 years later! I fell into battery research, but I have managed to branch out into other areas of research from there. For example, I have been able to investigate fuel cells and other doped materials because the practical nature of battery science gave me many transferable skills and knowledge.
What is the highlight of your career or the part that gives you greatest job satisfaction?
Watching the people I have trained do practical research and make batteries is incredibly rewarding. Those working at the forefront of the battery industry are making a tangible impact. I take great pleasure in training people to be good scientists and thorough engineers, so I feel confident they will do good work.
What opportunities has being part of the Faraday Institution opened up for you?
The Faraday Institution has given us an excellent network of people to talk to and a tremendous amount of support. The kudos of being part of the Faraday Institution brings a reputation to our research and St Andrews. It shows that we’re still doing ground-breaking and valuable research on batteries, which helps us leverage the university to get good people and facilities. For example, the Faraday Institution’s involvement has helped us obtain the funding for our dry room prototype facility.
What are the biggest challenges you have overcome in your career and how have you gone about doing so?
Unfortunately, I have to say money. Tracking down enough research funding to do the right work at the right time is a challenge for all researchers. It’s easier to get funding once something is shown to work, but extensive testing is required to explore which materials will improve a battery before you can commercialise them.
Batteries are a great system to work on because you can take the existing system and tweak the materials to improve it, but they’re tough to work on because you’re competing in a market that already has working products. Battery science is very industry-focussed compared to pure sciences, and many battery scientists have to consider their research from an engineering and economics perspective. Nowadays, there is more funding for energy-related work, but it does tend to be more practical (for real systems, and not research systems, which is what I do). COVID-19 has made this both more difficult, and easier because environmental issues are now more prominent.
What advice would you have liked to have given your younger self starting out on your career?
I would tell him which materials are now making money, 20 years later! I’d also encourage him to stay in battery research and push harder for his ideas if he has a good feeling about them.
What are your career aspirations?
To keep making batteries and be involved with industry in their scale up. I would love to see the commercialisation of batteries that I have been involved in developing.
What is your favourite battery-related fact?
The energy in a battery is about a third of that in gunpowder for an equivalent mass. So, if you keep your phone in your pocket, that’s about the equivalent of a teaspoon of gunpowder on your person!
If people want to find out more about your research, where would you point them to?
The John Irvine group website at St Andrews will give you a good overview of research in energy and materials at St Andrews.
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.