Battery research breakthrough powers success for international student
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.
Lithium-ion batteries present environmental, safety, and social issues. They aren’t long-lasting or reusable, they’re 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 in nature, and is cheaper to source. “So it was ticking all the boxes,” says Shalini.
The challenge was to find a material which could help boost its storage capacity, and this was at the heart of Shalini’s research.
Research success leads to tech start-up
Fast-forward from her student days, and Shalini is now co-founder and CEO 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 that we that we got huge storage out of my battery,” she says. “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.”
The material which proved successful is now awaiting a patent which should be secured in the coming months.
“Once we realized 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.”
But Shalini knows that she would not have got 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.
“I’m so glad 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 I know, has provided me with all the support that anyone like me could need.”
“New Zealand, being the greatest country I know, has provided me with all the support that anyone like me could need” – Dr Shalini Divya, former international student and co-founder of TasmanIon
While the aluminium-ion batteries don’t offer the same storage and energy output as lithium-ion, there are plenty of applications for it and it needs to create its own niche, Shalini says.
“There are industries which would prioritise safety or recyclability over the energy output. We’re not competing with Tesla right now. But what about shipping, the commercial drone sector, and the micro-mobility industry (e-bikes and e-scooters)? They are the industries we would target first.”
Battery technology will drive social and economic impact
Although commercial success is an exciting prospect, it is the social impact 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.”
Shalini is very loyal to New Zealand. “It feels like my second home.” For this reason, she has 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 huge impact in the coming years. I’m very optimistic that this technology will go places.”
Reflecting on her whirlwind international education experience in New Zealand, Shalini says it has presented opportunities she couldn’t have imagined when she left India. “New Zealand recognizes your talent and appreciates it and surrounds you with people who can help you build yourself.
“I am really, really happy here and I would want international students to come here and experience it for themselves.”