Illumion illuminates the inside of batteries

A novel, low-cost, technique for looking inside lithium-ion batteries and pinpointing potential defects is being commercialised to help speed up the development of promising new battery materials.

Developed by scientists at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and Yusuf Hamied Chemistry Department as an output of a Faraday Institution battery characterisation project, the optical microscopy technique could prove a vital tool for battery research. The team behind the technology plans to commercialise it through the formation of a spin-out, Illumion, which is being set up in the coming months with the support of a Faraday Institution Entrepreneurial Fellowship. 

This clip shows a rod-like particle of Nb14W3O44, which is a promising fast-charging anode material for lithium-ion batteries. During rapid delithiation, lithium concentration gradients develop along the length of the particle, leading to internal stresses which ultimately cause the particle to fracture. Such processes cannot be visualised by conventional characterisation techniques.

Currently, studying the behaviour of the lithium ions, and how they enter a battery’s active material, is time-consuming and requires the use of expensive synchrotron x-ray or electron microscopy techniques. “It’s an incredibly complex process to look at,” says Dr Christoph Schnedermann, from the Cavendish Laboratory, who is part of the team receiving the Entrepreneurial Fellowship. “So if you want to make a new battery, it takes a long time and the characterisation process for new materials is arduous. We wanted to better understand what happens inside these battery materials.” 

The technique developed by Dr Schnedermann and his colleagues – Alice Merryweather, Dr Quentin Jacquet, Professor Dame Clare Grey and Dr Akshay Rao – over three years, utilises an optical microscopy technique called interferometric scattering microscopy. “This allows us to look inside a battery, identify individual active particles and observe, under a microscope, the changes that happen to these particles while the battery is running,” Dr Schnedermann explains.  

“So, we can take a battery material, put it into our microscope system, and tell you how the ions go in and out, when and how it might crack or break or degrade in some other unexpected way. And from that we can quickly provide detailed information on why a battery could potentially fail.” 

The technique uses a laboratory-based microscope, giving researchers quick and easy access to the type of information that they would have previously needed to wait for beam time at central facilities like Diamond.  


Alice Merryweather, PhD Researcher at the University of Cambridge outlined the new technique at the Faraday Institution Conference in November 2021

The Entrepreneurial Fellowship will help Dr Schnedermann and his co-founders build their company, with the aim of getting this breakthrough to those in the industry as well as academia. They are already working with partners to test the system, and Dr Schnedermann says that, initially, it could prove particularly useful for small businesses developing new batteries. 

“If you’re a start-up with a fantastic new battery material, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to do all the characterisation work in-house,” he says. “Our technique will not only tell you more about your materials, but it also is going to be four or five times cheaper than anything you can buy in currently, which means it becomes much more affordable for young companies to optimise their materials. Our initial target is to provide this as an R&D tool for these businesses, and then to try and get it into the research departments of the big players in the industry.” 

By identifying and correcting defects at an earlier stage, Dr Schnedermann believes Illumion’s technique can have a substantial impact on streamlining battery development. “The overall development cycle of a battery is currently about ten years,” he says. “If we can shave even five per cent off that in terms of the time and money it takes, that’s a massive opportunity.” 

By the numbers
Six monthsaverage wait time to gain access to a synchrotron beam machine
24/7 availability of Illumion's in-house method
£100,000 cost of use a single synchrotron beam machine
£50,000 minimum cost saving per microscope using Illumion
12,000 readers accessing the Nature paper detailing the company’s technology

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