RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT RENEWABLE ENERGY BATTERIES SUSTAINABILITY

Battery Chat with Parri #3: Dr. Ilias Belharouak

Dr. Ilias Belharouak is the head of electrification and energy storage at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In this Battery Chat, he talks to Parri Adeli about the various energy storage topics his group are investigating including a new class of cathodes that they developed recently and its scale-up path.

Dr. Ilias Belharouak, head of electrification and energy storage at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Dr. Ilias Belharouak, head of electrification and energy storage at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Dr. Ilias Belharouak is a Distinguished Scientist & Head of the Electrification Section in the Electrification & Energy Infrastructures Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).
Before joining ORNL in 2017, he was a Research Director & the Founding Chief Scientist of the Electrochemical Energy Storage Center in the Qatar Foundation (2013-2017). Prior to that, he was a Material Scientist & Battery Expert in the Chemical Sciences & Engineering Division at Argonne National Laboratory (2001-2013). Dr. Belharouak has extensive experience working with multiple government agencies and industry in applying battery research for projects ranging from medical, electric vehicles & renewable energy storage applications. 

He authored and co-authored more than 150 peer-reviewed papers, 30 U.S. Patents and five books. He received his Ph.D. and MS. Degrees in Materials Science & Solid-State Chemistry from the Institute for Solid State Chemistry, National Center for Scientific Research, Bordeaux 1 University, France.

Parri Adeli: What are the different energy storage research topics that are ongoing in your division?

Dr. Ilias Belharouak: I am currently the section head of electrification and I manage around 40 people who are divided into three main groups: emerging and solid-state batteries, energy storage and conversion manufacturing, power electronics and embedded systems. The first group is working on next-generation energy storage research, the second group’s focus is on the development and manufacturing of advanced energy storage and conversion technologies such as advanced lithium-ion batteries. The third group, power electronics, is all about deployment and integration of these energy storage solutions with the grid and so on.

For that, we have the Battery Manufacturing Facility (BMF) here in-house at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) where we work on projects funded by the Vehicle Technology Office (VTO), and Advanced Manufacturing Office in the US Department of Energy (DOE). Our strategic intent is to be part of an ecosystem to create and sustain leadership in energy storage systems through synergistic breakthroughs in materials research and development, cell engineering, auxiliary power systems, and interfaces. BMF’s core mission is to expedite innovations in advanced battery materials research, battery manufacturing and cell prototyping that enable low-cost, high-energy, safer and long-life cells capable of fast charging and battery recycling.

PA: How long have you been working on the new class of NFA cathodes and how did this project come about?

IB: This work started back in 2018 based on my initial idea. When we look at the major challenges of advanced Li-ion batteries, in my opinion, they are still energy density, cost, performance and safety. If we want a technology that can get us above the 260 Wh/kg and technologies that can last more than five-eight thousand cycles with agreed-upon safety standards, we need to take a careful look at the cathode and the components portfolio in general.

With the current technologies, cobalt poses sustainability and cost challenges based on our calculations if we were to continue the current pace of electrification based on lithium-ion batteries. In a national lab, we should take on major research endeavors, that is why we are revisiting the portfolio of Ni-rich materials. They have been investigated since 1992 and the structural and thermal stability of material at high voltage, oxygen release, and other issues are known to the community. The battery community worked very hard to stabilize these materials and there are some great advancements.

In a national lab, we should take on major research endeavors, that is why we are revisiting the portfolio of Ni-rich materials.

A new class of cathodes called NFA that is being investigated for making lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. Credit: Andy Sproles/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy
A new class of cathodes called NFA that is being investigated for making lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. Credit: Andy Sproles/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

PA: Could you comment on the specific chemistry of the NFA cathodes and your funding sources?

IB: We are currently funded by the DOE’s VTO office. Through this funding, we were tasked to develop cobalt-free cathodes based on nickel. We came up with the combination of iron and aluminum as the balance. So, we are looking at the compositions that have at least 80% nickel. And we are moving to 90% nickel as the project progresses and the balance to make it to 100% “transition metal” is being ensured by Al and Fe.

You may wonder why Al and Fe. We initially posed the question on ourselves that this Fe-Al combination may or may not work and may or may not be the right choice because of some issues such as Fe dissolution or Fe stability at high voltages, but we wanted to do a very systematic study primarily guided by experiment and to some degree by modeling. We started utilizing the sol-gel process to map out the composition landscape of materials, then look at structure-microstructure properties in relation to electrochemistry. We are learning what is it that these two dopants can do, it all starts from science. Al and Fe have very similar sizes and have similar sizes as Ni3+ so they can substitute very easily and cleanly in the transition metal layer. The goal is to stabilize Ni3+ in these materials while avoiding Ni2+ migration issues to the lithium slab and vice versa.

We are using continuous stirred-tank reactors (CSTR) to scale them up. We are making very beautiful spherical and dense nickelates nowadays.

PA: So far you have two publications on the development of these cathode materials. Are there any updates and plans for large-scale production?

IB: We had the question of whether we can scale these materials from 5- 10 grams to kilograms in a DOE Lab. This project started by mapping out materials by the sol-gel process because of the easiness of the method, but the latter is not going to be the right scale up method either. So, now we are using continuous stirred-tank reactors (CSTR) to scale them up. We are making very beautiful spherical and dense nickelates nowadays, but we have not published these results yet. When we do ICP analysis [Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry] we can see that Al and Fe are there. These precipitate together with Ni are homogenously distributed.

With our neutron studies, we can look at the amount of Ni2+ in the Li slab as opposed to Al and Fe in the Ni slab. We also did a Mössbauer study to see whether Fe3+ is active in these materials or not, and we found out that indeed Fe3+ is active. Not only that it is active but also it is reversibly active.

PA: Who is licensing this technology? Do you have any industry partners for the scale-up?

IB: This project started at ORNL with DOE-VTO funding to assess a low LTR cathode technology. We also received DOE funding under a private – public partnership that the VTO office strategically envisioned to accelerate the development of these cathodes to higher TRLs among other battery technologies. We (ORNL) work with SPARKZ, a startup company located at the ORNL site since 2019. The work with SPARKZ involves the scale up of these materials for the forklift and EV markets. ORNL patented the technology and SPARKZ licensed it. They licensed the composition and process by which the material can be scaled up, as well as some electrolytes and formation cycle design, so the company has a portfolio of patents.We are working together towards transferring the technology to the industry partner, and through their investors they are looking at introducing these new nickelates to a wider market.

At the same time, we are very open to working with other companies and partners with the same mindset, which is to help create an ecosystem for these cathodes to move these early-stage developed cathodes to a commercial product if warranted.

We have also just won a Federal Laboratory Consortium Award under the Technology Transfer category for these cobalt-free cathodes: “Building Sustainability with Cobalt-Free Battery Technologies Licensed to Sparkz.” We are looking at 1000 cycles at C/3 rate with less than 20% capacity fade. We are looking at fast charging as well within 10-15 minutes. Today we are making 2-3Ah cells. We are not making coin cells anymore but instead rather sizable pouch cells. We are still at pilot scale and we do not intend to go to production scale, but we will eventually get there thanks to our industry partners. 

The work with SPARKZ involves the scale up of these materials for the forklift and EV markets. ORNL patented the technology and SPARKZ licensed it.

PA: In your Journal of Power Sources paper, you reported on the effect of zirconia (ZrO2) coating on LiNi0.5Mn0.1O4 (LNMO) cathodes. Are you working on such coatings for the NFA cathodes?

IB: In the LNMO paper, we took nano-powder zirconia and mixed it with micro-sized spinel LNMO material and then we ball milled them. It worked beautifully because it protected that cathode against some parasitic reactions. We could see some real nice rate performances and better cycle life as well as extremely fast charging of 10 minutes. Again, this study is early-stage research, we fully understand the challenge of the scale factor.

Regarding these nickelates, we need coatings and we are definitely working on that. We are working on a solution-based approach and looking at zirconia, some phosphates and solid-to-solid ultrasonic process as well. The work just started so we have not published anything yet.

PA: Any closing remarks on these cathodes?

IB: In my opinion, nickel is going to be more and more in the news. As scientists, we are perfectly suited for these low TRL R&D endeavors. Among the other endeavors that ORNL is devoting major attention to is solid-state batteries, we are looking at building operating solid-state battery devices down the road. But at present, the journey has started, we are making all-solid-state composite cathodes using these nickelates with the primary goal to understand interfaces and what would make sense in terms of energy density, rate capability and cycle life.

Again, the key enabler is our capabilities in materials science and characterization in a national lab, a capability such as the BMF facility is a precious investment that allows us to transition from the bench scale to the pilot scale, and my passion as a researcher is to enjoy science and engineering but also to see these nickelates into market one day.

PA: It was wonderful to talk to you!

IB: Truly enjoyed it. Thank you.

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