Social impact accompanies marketing prospects
Wellington, May 1, 2022
As the world heats up and pressure mounts to move away from fossil fuels, Wellington-based scientist Shalini Divya is leading the campaign to produce a durable, long-lasting battery that could transform renewable energy options.
Shalini came to Victoria University five years ago as an international student from India to complete her doctorate in chemistry. Little did she know then that her research would lead her to develop an effective alternative to the ubiquitous lithium-ion battery.
She admits she had never heard of aluminum ion until she was introduced to it by her supervisor, Professor Thomas Nann. But she quickly realized its benefits and knows it may one day become a viable replacement for lithium-ion, which powers most of our electronics.
Disadvantages of lithium-ion
Lithium-ion batteries present environmental, safety and social issues. They are not durable or reusable, they are flammable, and mining the cobalt they contain is known to involve child labor. Resources are limited, so they will become more expensive.
Aluminum, on the other hand, is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust, can be easily recycled, is non-flammable and costs less to supply.
“So he ticked all the boxes,” Shalini said.
The challenge was to find a material that could help increase its storage capacity, and that was central to Shalini’s research.
The effervescence of start-ups
Fast forward from her student days and Shalini is now co-founder and chief executive of start-up TasmanIon, which plans to bring her breakthrough battery technology to market.
“I tested 70-80 materials during my PhD and TasmanIon is pretty much one of those materials. I remember the excitement in the lab the day we got huge storage from my battery. There had this eureka moment. But, of course, as a PhD student, I had to carefully analyze the results. It took a long time and the research is still ongoing,” she said.
The proven material is now patent pending which is expected to be granted within the next few months.
“Once we realized the importance of this technology, TasmanIon was born. Three years ago, I was a very happy doctoral student, just worried about my thesis and my publications, and then I had this entrepreneurial streak,” she said.
But Shalini knows she wouldn’t have gotten this far without the unwavering support of advisors and mentors at the University of Victoria’s Wellington UniVentures marketing office, the MacDiarmid Institute and KiwiNet, who named her a Breakthrough Innovator of year 2021.
Tribute to New Zealand
“I’m very happy that everyone notices the technology, understands its potential impact and helps me implement it. It was a very steep learning curve because as a chemist I knew nothing about business. But New Zealand, being the biggest country I know, gave me all the support someone like me could need.
Although aluminum-ion batteries don’t offer the same energy storage and production as lithium-ion, there are many applications and they need to create their own niche, Shalini says.
“Some industries would prioritize safety or recyclability over energy production. 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.
While commercial success is an exciting prospect, it’s the social impact this technology could have in developing countries that 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 isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, we need batteries to store reserves of renewable energy. 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’s like my second home.”
So she resisted the pressure to bring her technology to Europe and insisted on keeping the intellectual property (IP) here.
New Zealand does not currently have a laboratory capable of producing batteries for commercial use, but that does not put it in phase.
“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 technologies might even use the lab facilities here. In this way, New Zealand derives an economic benefit.
“Investors I have spoken to can see that aluminum-ion batteries will have a huge impact in the years to come. I am very optimistic that this technology will go far,” she said.
Reflecting on her whirlwind international education experience in New Zealand, Shalini said it gave her opportunities she could not have imagined when she left India.
“New Zealand recognizes your talent and appreciates it and surrounds you with people who can help build you up. I am really happy here and would like international students to come here and experience it for themselves” , said Shalini.
Source: Education New Zealand