Battery Research and Nanotechnology: Research Race for Tomorrow’s Energy Sources

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Guest author: Ulla Thiede

Battery research and nanotechnology are key elements on the way to electro mobility. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research invests more than €250 million into relevant research projects each year – many of them are international collaborations.

“Battery research is a kind of Via Dolorosa,” says Doron Aurbach with a twinkle in his eyes. The Israeli electrochemist, surface scientist and chemical engineer at Ramat Gan’s Bar-Ilan University took the first step on his Via Dolorosa three decades ago. The gentleman with the black kippa and the white beard seeks to free mankind from fossil fuels as an energy source. Electro mobility is a step on this way. However, in order to replace combustion engines with electric drive in the long run, cars will need appropriate transaction batteries.

Researchers, the industry and start-up companies all over the world compete in a research race for tomorrow’s battery system – technology that is cheaper, safer, lighter and more compact than today’s solutions. However, until now, the capacity of one battery charge is too small, the energy density is too low and the life span is not yet satisfying. International collaborations are supposed to speed up a breakthrough. Governments worldwide invest into research, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research alone supports battery research with about 500 million Euros in the framework of its overarching concept “Forschungsfabrik Batterie” (“Research Factory Battery”).

Aurbach is active in an international network: “Many of my partners are based in Germany. I started a longstanding cooperation with Merck in Darmstadt in 1996.” The German company had just started producing electrolyte solutions for batteries on a large scale. Electrolytes are chemical connections that serve as electrical conductive material – key to every battery. “The mere fact that such a huge company entered the field of electrolyte production is a breakthrough. It made battery research more affordable and saved laboratories all over the world a lot of effort,” explains Aurbach who also heads the ‘Nano Clean Tech Center’ at the Institute for Natotechnologies and Advanced Materials at Bar-Ilan University. Aurbach is also the leader of the Israeli National Research Center for Electrochemical Propulsion (INREP) which consists of 15 research groups from 4 academic institutions.

While lithium ion batteries are currently the most advanced technology for electronic vehicles, Aurbach’s team researches magnesium batteries, lithium oxygen batteries, lithium sulfur batteries and sulfur capacitors as well. “We achieved panoramic and comprehensive research experience in the field of energy accumulation,” says Aurbach who also closely collaborates with BASF. “More than one third of my research is linked to the Ludwigsburg-based company.”

The German-Israeli Project Cooperation (DIP) and the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development (GIF) put him in touch with Joachim Maier, director of the Max-Planck-Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart and recently with Volker Presser of the Leibnitz-Institute for New Materials. The latest collaborative addition is a project with Martin Winter, head of MEET Battery Research Center at Münster University as well as the Helmholtz Institute Münster of Forschungszentrum Jülich.

The transition to batteries, fuel cells or super capacitors in transportation are exit strategies for the use of fossil fuel in transportation,“ explains Ilana Lowi of the Israeli Ministry for Science, Technology and Space (MOST) and adds: “though the research community in the relevant areas is quite small in both countries.” At the top of the race are scientists and manufacturers in Japan, South Korea and China.

The first German Israeli Battery School for young scientists (GIBS) took place in October 2014 in Tel Aviv, followed by a second convention in April 2016 in Munich. The aim was to draw attention to research fields of alternative fuel technology and energy accumulators. PhD candidates of both countries discussed and shared their experiences with battery researchers of MEET, Justus-Liebig University of Gießen, Tel Aviv University (TAU) and Bar-Ilan University.

Emanuel Peled of TAU built a piece of history, as early as 25 years ago. “I was the first in the world to build rechargeable lithium sulphur batteries. But I stopped it because we had limitations with the durability, we couldn’t advance,” explains the battery researcher. However, a few years ago, Peled returned to this technology and is now continuing his research within the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation Horizon 2020. The HELIS-Projekt further consists of researchers of the German Fraunhofer Society, Max-Planck Institutes and the University of Münster. “We see progress on a monthly basis,” says Peled. Researchers publish significant numbers of articles: each month around 150 new scientific publications on lithium sulphur batteries are issued worldwide. These papers will launch the next generation of car batteries – in a few years’ time.

Nanotechnology plays a crucial role in the development of batteries and scientists have high hopes that this will lead to global solutions. However, nanotechnology is not a discipline of its own but rather a type of technology that is used in different fields such as medicine, communication, environment, traffic and nutrition. The word ‘nano’ literally means ‘dwarf’ and scientists deal with atoms and molecules. They research new materials that bear new properties due to the miniature size of the individual particles – the results are different materials.  

The German BMBF supports projects related to nanotechnology, also including German-Israeli research projects. Twelve joint projects started at the beginning of 2018. Both countries have invested around 8 million euros each in the three-year projects. The mid-term meeting took place in Bonn in February 2019. A final conference is planned for 2021 in Israel.

ELASTISLET is one of the nanotechnology projects that are financed by the European research programme Horizon 2020. Yuval Dor, biologist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem explains their project: “We research cell therapies for diabetes. Our aim is to find capsule material for beta cells that were cultivated from stem cells or brain-dead patients.” Beta cells produce insulin in healthy bodies while diabetes patients lack insulin. The idea is to transplant beta cells. “In order to avoid any kind of rejection through the immune system our consortium researches nano material that covers the new cells.” Via ELASTISLET Dor is in touch with the German company Axiogenesis in Cologne.

Germany’s Fraunhofer Society (FhG), Europe’s largest application-oriented research organisation, is highly interested in the new German-Israeli nanotechnological research programme. Adelheid Adam, who is responsible for the North African and Middle Eastern business development, states that the society’s yield with Israel doubled in 2015 compared to the previous year. However, collaborations are not limited to nanotechnology but include battery research (see HELIS) as well. In addition to the EU funding programmes, Fraunhofer also benefits from the interministerial collaboration (BMBF-ECONOMY-MOST) with Israel.

Israeli and German scientists had a joint brainstorming session at the next colloquium of the Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation in Tel Aviv from 21-23 September 2016. The conference’s title: ‘Bridges to the Future: German-Israeli Scientific Relations’. According to AvHS-president Professor Helmut Schwarz, the foundation has supported 297 Israeli Humboldt scholars since the late 1950s. “It is impressive that the proportion of Israeli laureates is above average; still, the foundation would welcome an even higher number of Israeli Early Career Researchers,” explains Schwarz.

Until 2019, the Minerva Foundation’s Arches Award for Research Cooperation and High Excellence in Science supported two teams of young German-Israeli researchers per year. Each team was awarded €200000. In 2019, the laureates were the research teams of Dr. Miriam Goldstein, Hebrew University and Prof. Ronny Vollandt, LMU Munich; Prof. Rafal Klajn, Weizmann Institute and Prof. Andreas Walther, University of Freiburg;  and Prof. Asya Rolls, Technion, Haifa and Dr. Ozgun Gokce, LMU Munich.

„Israel is a small country,“ says battery researcher Aurbach in response to the question why they collaborate with Germany. A small country needs strong partners, even though Israel will never be able to compete with Asia when it comes to battery production. This said, Aurbach considers the attempt almost philanthropic: “We aim to develop science that will progress mankind into electro mobility.” The only remaining question seems to be therefore: who is going to do the quantum leap in the end.