Spread over five floors of the recently refurbished Rex Richards Building, Oxford’s new Centre for Energy Materials Research (CEMR) will bring together experimental and computational scientists working on different aspects of energy storage and conversion. With an extensive range of synthesis, characterisation, and analytical equipment, the facility will enable a highly interdisciplinary approach to energy materials research. Central to this is the ability to handle and process materials under an inert atmosphere, since many energy-related materials react with the oxygen and water present in air.
Speaking at the launch event, Professor Irene Tracey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, said: ‘I’m delighted to attend the official opening of this wonderful new centre that is doing ground-breaking research to address some of the pressing challenges in the energy sector. Our future energy needs must be met in ways that consider natural resources and human welfare. And the University’s substantial research strengths cover the many disciplines which are needed to ensure a just and fair energy transition for us in the UK and globally. This capability enables vital collaborations, from access for SMEs to major partnerships with industry and other institutions. I wish my colleagues every success in this vitally important endeavour.’
The Centre began as a vision of Sir Peter Bruce’s, Wolfson Professor of Materials, to create a physical space dedicated to energy materials research. He has brought together investment by the University, the Faraday Institution, and the Sir Henry Royce Institute.
Sir Peter says: ‘Materials are key to the transformation to new low carbon technologies and to a successful green economy. The world-leading research carried out at the CEMR will provide the new materials and fundamental understanding that underpins these technologies. To address global challenges, such as climate change, we must work collaboratively and this centre brings together researchers from different disciplines, unifies experimentalists and modellers, and fosters interactions from Faculty members to postgraduate students. I am deeply grateful for all the great efforts of the many others without whom the Centre would not have happened.’
A particular focus for the CEMR will be energy storage technologies. The University of Oxford has a strong and growing battery research community, and is playing a leading role in several major battery-related projects supported by the Faraday Institution.
As an example, the Centre will help to advance the work of Professor Sir Peter Bruce and Professor Mauro Pasta concerning solid-state batteries.
Professor Pam Thomas, CEO of The Faraday Institution, points out that the Centre will also help tackle the issue of sustainably sourcing key materials in the battery supply chain whilst minimising their environmental impact. This exploring alternatives to the critically constrained elements lithium and cobalt, such as the work led by Professor Saiful Islam, Professor Sir Peter Bruce, and Dr Robert House on the potential energy storage chemistries of earth-abundant elements such as sodium, manganese, magnesium, and iron.
The CEMR comes at a critical juncture for the UK. Faraday estimates that by 2040 UK demand for batteries for the automotive sector could require 10 gigafactories each with a capacity of 20GWh each, a total; of 200GWh. A UK Parliamentary hearing in May was told that the UK capacity is just 2GWh, with Benchmark Mineral Intelligence’s Simon Moores stating that the UK is a ‘bystander in the global battery arms race.’
But insofar as the UK has a globally respected presence in the sector it increasingly rests on UK universities among which Oxford is preeminent.
Abe Thomas, the founder of the popular EV Summit, has insisted from the start that the international event be held in Oxford rather than London.
Meanwhile May 11-12 saw The Oxford Battery Metals Lectures 2023, a two-day conference, take place at the University’s Natural History Museum.
Organised by Oxford Science Park-based battery metals consultancy SFA, the lectures attracted a global audience and featured speakers such as Richard Taylor, founder of Green Lithium the UK’s first merchant lithium refinery and Dan Blondal, CEO of Canadian company Nano One Materials, which has patented a process for lower cost cathode materials for automotive batteries.
Kimberly Berman of SFA offered the roadmap to 2035 for North America in respect of the energy transition to electric mobility and its associated supply chains, and it was painfully obvious the degree to which the UK has now fallen out of the race – except as a hub of academic excellence within fundamental material science, which will likely shape the energy transition for decades to come and not just against short term government-mandated deadlines.