Social impact accompanies commercialisation prospects
Wellington, May 1, 2022
As the world warms and pressure mounts to transition away from fossil fuels, Wellington-based scientist Shalini Divya is leading the drive to produce a long-lasting and sustainable battery which could transform renewable energy options.
Shalini came to Victoria University five years ago as an international student from India to complete her PhD in Chemistry. Little could she have known then that her research would lead her to develop an effective alternative to the ubiquitous lithium-ion battery.
She admits that she had never heard of aluminium-ion before being introduced to it by her supervisor Professor Thomas Nann. But she quickly learned of its benefits and knows it can one day become a viable replacement for lithium-ion, which powers most of our electronics.
The downside of Lithium-ion
Lithium-ion batteries present environmental, safety, and social issues. They are not long-lasting or reusable, they are flammable, and the mining of the cobalt they contain is known to involve child labour. Resources are limited so they are going to get more expensive.
Aluminium, on the other hand, is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust, can easily be recycled, is non-flammable, and is cheaper to source.
“So, it was ticking all the boxes,” Shalini said.
The challenge was to find a material which could help boost its storage capacity, and this was at the heart of Shalini’s research.
The start-up excitement
Fast-forward from her student days and Shalini is now Co-Founder and Chief Executive of start-up TasmanIon, which plans to commercialise her revolutionary battery technology.
“I tested 70-80 materials during my PhD and TasmanIon is about one of those materials. I remember the excitement in the lab the day we got huge storage out of my battery. There was that eureka moment. But, of course, as a PhD student, I had to analyse the results carefully. That took a very long time, and the research still continues,” she said.
The material, which proved successful is now awaiting a patent which should be secured in the coming months.
“Once we realised the significance of this technology, TasmanIon was born. Three years ago, I was a very happy PhD student, just worried about my thesis and publications, and then I got that entrepreneurial streak,” she said.
But Shalini knows that she would not have gotten this far without the unstinting support of advisors and mentors at Victoria University’s commercialisation office Wellington UniVentures, MacDiarmid Institute, and KiwiNet, which named her 2021 Breakthrough Innovator of the Year.
Tribute to New Zealand
“I am so glad that everyone is taking notice of the technology, understanding its potential impact, and helping me implement it. It has been a very steep learning curve because as a chemist I knew nothing about business. But New Zealand, being the greatest country that I know, has provided me with all the support that anyone like me could need.”
While the aluminium-ion batteries don’t offer the same storage and energy output as lithium-ion, there are plenty of applications and it needs to create its own niche, Shalini says.
“There are industries which would prioritise safety or recyclability over the energy output. We are not competing with Tesla now. But shipping, the commercial drone sector, and the micro-mobility industry (e-bikes and e-scooters) are the industries we would target first,” she said.
Although commercial success is an exciting prospect, it is the social impact that this technology could have in developing countries which also motivates Shalini. Energy poverty is estimated to affect more than 400 million people worldwide, limiting access to food and water, education and employment, and impacting health and hygiene.
“When the Sun doesn’t shine, or the wind doesn’t blow, we need batteries to store renewable energy reserves. Widespread use of sustainable batteries would be a huge step forward in lifting people out of poverty,” she said.
Shalini is very loyal to New Zealand.
“It feels like my second home.”
She has therefore resisted pressure to take her technology to Europe and insisted on retaining the Intellectual Property (IP) here.
New Zealand does not currently have a lab capable of producing batteries commercially, but that doesn’t phase her.
“Once we start scaling up, we can produce them elsewhere, as long as the Research and Development (R&D) facility is in New Zealand. Other countries testing new technology could even use the lab facilities here. In this way, New Zealand gets the economic benefit.”
“Investors I’ve spoken to can see that aluminium-ion batteries will create a huge impact in the coming years. I am very optimistic that this technology will go places,” she said.
Reflecting on her whirlwind international education experience in New Zealand, Shalini said that it has presented opportunities that she could not have imagined when she left India.
“New Zealand recognises your talent and appreciates it and surrounds you with people who can help you build yourself. I am really happy here and I would want international students to come here and experience it for themselves,” Shalini said.
Source: Education New Zealand