In the recently concluded Virtual Edition of Next Einstein Forum held in Kigali Rwanda, NEF Ambassadors ‘class of 2019-2021’ was unveiled. NEF Ambassadors are the NEF’s young science and technology champions, one from each African country. All under 42 years, they drive the NEF’s local public engagement activities while growing their careers through the NEF’s partnerships that offer opportunities for mentorship and collaborations with established researchers.
Among these is a budding Ethiopian scientist, Andebet Gedamu who was distinguished and recognized by Africa’s biggest scientific gathering.
Andebet Gedamu was engaged in conducting cutting-edge research in the area of next-generation rechargeable batteries from 2017 to 2018, after completing his PhD in 2015 from the department of Chemical Engineering, National Taiwan University of Science and Technology. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Kotebe Metropolitan University (KMU), Ethiopia. Capital linked up with this extraordinary scientist for an analytical review of his cutting-edge research. Excerpts;
Capital: How would you explain the next-generation rechargeable batteries?
Andebet Gedamu: First, I would like to make clear that the existing commercially available rechargeable batteries, which are largely lithium-ion batteries, suffer from low energy density and is approaching the theoretical value. On the other hand, the development of portable electronics, electric vehicles, and grid-scale energy storage systems which require batteries with a higher energy density are growing rapidly. The trade-off between high energy demand and huge performance gap of existing systems led to the developments of next-generation rechargeable batteries. We can describe next-generation rechargeable batteries as energy storage systems with superior characteristics of outmost importance. They have higher energy densities, light weight, better safety characteristics, environmentally friendly and longer cycle life than the current battery systems, often while simultaneously cutting costs.
Capital: Are these batteries lithium-ion? How long will they last and how fast can we charge them?
Andebet Gedamu: Next-generation rechargeable batteries include both advanced lithium-ion batteries such as all-solid-state lithium-ion, lithium-metal, lithium-air, lithium-sulfur and post-lithium battery chemistries such as sodium-ion, multivalent metal-ion, metal-air, redox flow, etc.
Yes, the durability and speed of charging are both critical issues in commercialization of battery especially in electric vehicles which are powered exclusively by batteries. The current, lithium-ion batteries suffer from slow charging time, low cycle life and low energy, which can significantly impact the overall performance of the device. In fact, the newly emerging batteries vary each other greatly in terms of various parameters but, regardless of their type and application we expect batteries charged within a couple of minutes. The battery packs will also be designed to last for more than a decade of life. However, I believe that no single battery technology will dominate the industry at large.
Capital: These batteries are already reaching out to the market, what makes your batteries different from these that are already in the market?
Andebet Gedamu: Yes! New advanced batteries are currently in research and development, plus a few types of advanced batteries are also currently commercially available. Since battery is a complex electrochemical system, various requirements must be achieved before released to the market. For instance, high energy and power density, longer cycle lifetime, lower cost, fast charging time, environmentally friendly and safe. I believe that over time advanced battery will eventually replace some, if not all, current commercial rechargeable Li-ion batteries.
My research project mainly focuses on enabling the use of silicon electrode as an alternative to graphite electrode in Li-ion batteries. I would like to make clear what is the major gap of the current existing lithium-ion battery. Most commercial lithium-ion batteries are based on graphite anode electrode, which has a maximum attainable capacity of 372 mAh/g. Hence, graphite fails to meet future demands of the optimal capacity of 1000 mAh/g. In this regard, silicon stands as one of the most outstanding options, with a theoretical capacity close to 4000 mAh/g, more than 10 times higher capacity than graphite. Therefore, the shift from graphite- to silicon-based electrode can significantly increase the energy density of batteries. In addition, silicon is highly abundant and environmentally friendly. However, large volume change of silicon during charging and discharging process remains the major challenge in commercialization of silicon-based anode batteries. Therefore, researchers in this area, including my research, aim at designing electrode integrity and increase battery life.
Capital: You were one those who were selected from Ethiopia by the Next Einstein Forum that offer opportunities for mentorship and collaborations with established researchers. Can you explain how you will benefit from this?
Andebet Gedamu: You are right! I am the Next Einstein Forum Ambassador, representing Ethiopia for two years until the end of 2021. Like other African scientists, one of the challenges in my career is lack of research funding and collaboration. To this end, NEF helped me to connect with leading scientists and make collaborations and networks with other NEF members and other renowned scientists. In addition, NEF creates several platforms to present my work at global level and thereby gain global visibility to my research outputs. It also creates chances to meet successful African scientist and leading innovators which will help me to become acquainted with how to tackle the real challenges that hamper to conduct research. As a young scholar and researcher, I am challenged with the way how my research outputs to a level of end-user products. In this regard, NEF creates an opportunity to communicate with industries, product developers and other stakeholders.
Capital: What do you think the future of battery technology will be?
Andebet Gedamu: In fact, the answer for this question is not as such simple, as it depends on a range of factors, from the speed of innovation to the ability to reduce costs of the new technologies. But, as there is a high expansion of smartphones, computers, tablets, electric vehicles, flexible and wearable electronic devices and other portable electronic equipments there is a growing demand for high-performance rechargeable batteries for these devices.
There are still significant challenges to implementing new battery materials, such as silicon which I mentioned earlier and high-voltage cathodes. If both changes can be made, I think, we could see batteries with better mechanical and electrochemical properties in the market within a couple of years. For instance, leading automobile manufacturers, including General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and Tesla, are actively engaged in the design and development of Electric and Hybrid Vehicles and established giga factories to produce high-capacity, reliable batteries, hinting that a future switch for EVs could soon take place. Overall, I would say the future of battery technology would be very exciting and bright.
Capital: How can Africa benefit from this technology?
Andebet Gedamu: Africa’s population is increasing very rapidly. Concurrently, the need for portable electronic devices and electric vehicles is growing rapidly in the continent. In this regard, next-generation batteries are expected to promote the sustainable development of the society. Africa has huge potential for solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal power, and other sustainable energy sources. Thus, highly reliable and well-designed stationary batteries with higher energy, better charge-discharge cycle and durability characteristics are needed to ensure electricity from these renewables can be stored for use when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun shining. In addition, Africa is rich in resources. For example, cobalt, one of the key elements for battery making, is in the Democratic Republic of Congo with more than half of global supply. However, as the rest of the world is heading to new green energy storage systems, I am afraid Africa will be dumping ground for the existing old batteries unless researchers, industries, product developers and other stakeholders are engaged to developing new energy storage systems.