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Conducting chemistry

20 September 2017
Chemist charges ahead in bid to improve batteries

Lithium-ion and sodium-ion batteries are amongst the hottest topics in materials research. We meet the chemist and SOAR Fellow designing, testing and optimising the fundamental chemical configurations of your future technology. 

Associate Professor Chris Ling is a solid-state materials chemist.

“When people think of chemical compounds, they usually think of molecules, either alone or collectively as liquids and gases. The compounds I work on have no discrete molecules – they only meaningfully exist as solids. The unique properties of the solid state means that these tend to be the compounds that modern technology is actually made of – electronics, magnets, sensors, lasers, hard disks, and more.

“The focus of my SOAR Fellowship is solid-state ionic conductors. These are somewhat paradoxical compounds: highly ordered crystalline solids through which selected types of ions can move in a liquid-like manner. Solid-state ionic conductors are the key material components for energy storage and conversion devices such as batteries and fuel cells.”

Associate Professor Ling is one of three Faculty of Science recipients of the University’s Sydney Research Accelerator (SOAR) Fellowships. Six months into his two-year SOAR Fellowship, we catch up with Chris to find out more about the flow of his unique research.

The SOAR Fellowship is helping Chris to raise the profile, impact and scope of his research in solid-state materials both in Australia and in the international arena. 

It’s time to try something new, and the Fellowship gives me the freedom to do this by working on a deeper and more fundamental level than would be possible in a product-driven industrial laboratory. This is where the big breakthroughs are most likely to come.”
Associate Professor Chris Ling

“Solid-state lithium-ion batteries, and their emerging sodium-ion analogues, are among the hottest topics in materials research today.

“In working solid-state batteries, enormous numbers of ions must be moved long distances between different materials, as fast and as many times as possible, without significantly degrading,” Chris said.

Chris’ approach to improving the performance of battery materials is to focus not on the macroscopic end-use properties, but on the microscopic details – specifically, their fundamental atomic-scale structure and dynamics – that ultimately determine and control those properties. Understanding the relationship between atomic structure and properties means that he can use his knowledge of solid-state chemistry, in turn, to manipulate atomic structure, thereby providing a rational design pathway to improved performance.

Tweaking, experimenting, trialling, testing and eliminating all come into this work.

“I design, synthesise, optimise and test the performance of different configurations of solid-state ionic conductors.

“For example, ions generally need channels, or spaces, to move through. The size of the channels is related to the size of the framework atoms. So, we might try removing some of those atoms, or replacing a proportion of them with smaller ones, or otherwise altering their arrangement in order to manipulate the conduction pathways.

“Sometimes our results don’t work out the way we expect, or want them to, but surprisingly often, the results still turn out to be interesting. There are no closing doors in this research, just multiple window openings that give us new ideas to tweak, trial and test.”

Key among the tools he is using are neutron and synchrotron X-ray scattering instruments at major national and international facilities, especially the OPAL research reactor at Lucas Heights and the Australian Synchrotron, both operated by ANSTO. Chris is a leading expert in designing experiments and using data from these instruments to analyse the atomic structure and dynamics of materials, including in situ during battery cycling.

“The SOAR Fellowship is allowing me to try new and more ambitious ideas. The aim is, of course, to identify the best materials and configurations to use in batteries. However, progress in batteries over the last 20 years has conspicuously failed to keep pace with other technological advances. It’s time to try something new, and the Fellowship gives me the freedom to do this by working on a deeper and more fundamental level than would be possible in a product-driven industrial laboratory. This is where the big breakthroughs are most likely to come.”

Chris is SOARing materials chemistry into our future, one tiny variable at a time.