Conventional batteries aren’t a sustainable solution for our planet. Prof. Alexandru Vlad is currently working on an alternative for storing energy: all-organic batteries.
Today’s all-electronic devices use lithium-ion batteries. Their production consumes a lot of energy owing to their raw material, heavy metals (nickel, cobalt), whose recycling is complex and energy-intensive. Prof. Vlad of the Institute of Condensed Matter and Nanosciences says, ‘In 10 to 20 years, we’ll have to increase battery storage capacity by almost 100.’ On top of this, transport will become increasingly ‘electric’. ‘If we want to electrify all the world’s cars, there’s no doubt, we must increase battery capacity.’ This means increasing not only the capacity but the number of batteries, exponentially. With today’s technology, this isn’t realistic. Indeed, the materials will quickly prove insufficient and the CO2 impact will very quickly increase. Conclusion: we must find cleaner alternatives less dependent on current raw materials.
Large-scale production of organic batteries
Thus Prof. Vlad dreamed of organic batteries. An organic battery is made up of organic chemical elements, doesn’t use heavy metals or rare earths, and is 100% recyclable (or even biodegradable). ‘Since 2018, through the five-year ERC MOOiRE project,’ Prof. Vlad explains, ‘I’ve been exploring the possibility of creating batteries composed entirely of carbon, oxygen or nitrogen. The goal is to eliminate all heavy metals, such as nickel and cobalt, which pose major environmental and geostrategic problems.’ This is ambitious given that today no chemistry can produce organic batteries on a large scale. Prof. Vlad is looking for compatible chemistries to launch this industry.
From organic chemistry to all-organic batteries
Concretely, to remove heavy metals and arrive at fully organic batteries, organic materials must be found which can reversibly store electrical energy (in other words, electrons, via redox reactions). ‘Instead of storing energy via heavy metal redox reaction,’ Prof. Vlad says, ‘we’re looking for organic compounds that can achieve the same process.’
Not an easy sell
Finding such organic compounds would be a giant step, but Prof. Vlad cautions, ‘Organic batteries have certain disadvantages. The first is of course that we don’t yet have enough chemistry that’s compatible with the current battery manufacturing process. The second is that an organic battery based on known chemistry already contains less energy than a conventional battery. Finally, organic batteries have a larger volume (per unit of energy), which makes the manufacturing cost higher.’ Today’s manufacturing cost of a conventional battery is around €200 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). An organic battery would cost twice as much. ‘Of course, the more we increase production, the lower the price. We could manage to lower the price of conventional batteries below €20/kilowatt-hour by 2030, while hoping that all organic batteries will follow the same trend.’
Where’s the research at?
Prof. Vlad has been working on this idea for more than five years. Following bibliographic research and specifying material properties, he established a list of molecules that could meet specifications (e.g. high capacity and voltage). He tested a dozen molecules in the laboratory. ‘Four or five chemicals are already promising. We continue to test them to verify material performance. Several scientific articles are in progress.’
When will we see organic batteries?
For the moment, prototyped batteries are in laboratory format. Gradually, when given the green the light, Prof. Vlad will test them on a larger scale, in industrial and commercial format. He’ll work on optimising the material itself, increasing energy and lifespan, and making the batteries more sustainable. ‘For example, we’ll have to think about production processes for organic batteries. During production, no polluting solvents can be used.’ When can we expect an organic battery to emerge from this research? ‘In 10 to 15 years, we could have large-scale prototypes. And in 20 to 30 years, we could imagine concrete applications.’
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A glance at Alexandrus Vlad's bio
Dr Alexandru Vlad obtained his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Politehnica University in Bucharest (2003) and his PhD in applied sciences, electrical engineering from the University of Louvain (Belgium) in 2009. After postdoctoral residencies at the Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden) and Rice University (US), he received a grant from the National Fund for Scientific Research (2011, FRS-FNRS, Belgium). Currently, he is pursuing an academic career at the University of Louvain. His research interests cover the fields of materials science, nanotechnology, and applied electrochemistry for energy storage and recovery applications.