Researcher Profile: Kristina Edström
EXCELLENT CONDUIT FOR BRIGHT SPARKS
Her projects win research funding in the multimillion-krona class year after year, and she has put Uppsala University’s battery research on the world map. But today Kristina Edström’s main focus is on guiding promising young researchers at the Ångström Lab. ‘It’s all about building something for the long term — something with both depth and breadth.’
In the past few decades, hopes concerning future energy systems have been associated to a high degree with development of smarter and more efficient batteries. Batteries that are smaller, cheaper and recyclable, but with greater storage capacity and better performance, are reflected in major grants for battery research. One of the most rewarded research teams is headed by Kristina Edström, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry.
‘Today, battery research is often driven by the automotive industry’s wish for development of electric cars and hybridisation. Companies used to say: “A battery’s something we buy — it just has to work.” Today they say: “We’ve got to understand what’s inside as well.” There’s a huge, positive difference.’
Her battery group recently received SEK 27 million from the Battery Fund, a research and development programme focusing on battery reuse and recycling, and on vehicle batteries, run jointly by the Swedish Energy Agency and the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. That, says Kristina Edström, was an encouraging signal.
‘Battery research is gradual and based on understanding of a huge number of complex reactions. To succeed in phasing out hazardous chemicals from environmental cycles, we’re looking for renewable, recyclable raw materials to replace copper, lead and other substances that cause heavy carbon emissions.’
One example is the work of her colleague Daniel Brandell, who has made good progress. In autumn 2014, his group reported that they had developed a lithium battery with chemicals made from pine resin and alfalfa sprouts. The energy content proved to be comparable to ordinary lithium-ion batteries, but what was most striking was that it was possible to reuse the battery components while retaining nearly 100% capacity.
‘It’s extremely exciting that our scientists have now established how this material behaves and been able to build unusual new structures,’ Edström says. ‘Producing a new material that no one else has looked at is great fun, especially if it’s a young person who does it.’
She herself is seldom in the lab nowadays. She has to find time for so many other commitments: being Vice Dean for Research at the Faculty of Science and Technology, chairing the STandUp for Energy research programme, supervising seven doctoral students, teaching various courses and so on. She also heads research at the Ångström Advanced Battery Centre (ÅABC), the largest battery research group in the Nordic countries, with its 40-odd members.
‘You have to dare let go of your own need for control, and delegate certain tasks to your colleagues. Still, I like to be there and create a team spirit,’ she says.
‘Think of a battery composed of one negative and one positive pole, and something in between to prevent short-circuiting. In our battery group I’ve researched the negative electrode and what happens there. Then I’ve got a small group with a senior researcher who does a lot of work on the positive electrode. And Daniel Brandell has a tremendous lot of responsibility for what goes in between, the electrolyte. So, together, the three of us have become a well-functioning battery,’ chuckles Edström.
The group functions so well that it leads the world in terms of understanding, and making use of, the interface between the negative electrode material and the electrolyte, and how it affects stability in temperature differences. This creates scope for faster charging of batteries irrespective of weather conditions.
Do you have any wishes about how your battery research should develop?
‘In battery research you keep getting stuck, as the problems it involves are complex. But initiatives in areas like interfaces and surface effects shouldn’t detract from the support for more penetrating chemicals research. What’s needed most of all is more research in developing methods that can be used in other areas, in the event that we need to change the direction of battery research in the future.’
Facts – Kristina Edström
Title: Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Uppsala University.
Research: every aspect of lithium batteries and the chemistry of fuel cells. The main applications are batteries for electric vehicles, microbatteries and lithium-air batteries.
Hidden talent: great skill in handiwork, knitting and crocheting. The result is a copious supply of gloves and wrist warmers. Not many major projects at present since time is short.
What makes me happy: generosity. Choral music; used to sing myself, but I suppose it’s one of the things I’ve made a low priority. My doctoral students make me happy! Half the group are from abroad, and several of them are enormously ambitious.
Model: her mother was the first professor of children’s literature in Scandinavia, and one of Sweden’s very first female professors. ‘She took all the hard knocks you can get as a woman researcher. What she passed on to me was love of getting to the bottom of things: knowledge and these processes involved in doing research, understanding, expressing yourself and imparting research information to others.’
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