Kristina Edström: Charged for the future
The vehicles of the future are fossil-free and run on batteries – but there are many challenges left to solve. Kristina Edström, Professor at the Department of Chemistry – Ångström Laboratory, is playing a key role now that the European Commission is investing big in battery development.
Kristina Edström has conducted research on batteries since the 1990s and leads the Nordic region’s largest research team in the battery field. In 2019, she has the task of preparing for a large-scale EU project – in which companies and researchers will cooperate on developing the batteries of the future.
The idea is that the European Commission will finance half of the cost and the member countries will bear the other half. A smart model, according to Edström.
“This way, we can have projects running, with a long-term management structure and a planned office in Uppsala, and then the different countries contribute money so that their researchers can be involved. It will build on excellence and there are countries that are not there yet, but that have begun building up battery research. If we can support them, we will have improved the entire field.”
The reason why the European Commission is backing initiatives in batteries right now is that they want to boost the auto industry and new future innovations. If it becomes possible to manufacture not only buses, but also their batteries, this will reduce the dependence on suppliers in Asia. The vision is to build huge battery factories in Europe.
“The Commission is working with the entire value chain for batteries: minerals and mining companies, material companies, producers, consumers and those who recycle batteries. It’s a whole circle and demands a sustainability perspective,” says Edström.
What can come from this?
“Europe can make a more coordinated effort that is more long term and so can make these networks stronger. I believe that it can be very good for an entire generation of young researchers in Europe who get into this.”
When she started out as a battery researcher herself in the 1990s, her driving force was the creative aspect of inventing materials and designing them for special properties.
“What’s fun about battery research is that the connection is so close between how you design your material and the effect on a battery. You can build your own battery and then test it. ‘Wow, it improved by 20 per cent!’ Most often it doesn’t, but when you succeed, it’s great fun.”
Her first project after earning her PhD was a cooperation with Eriksson on lithium-ion batteries for mobile phones. The batteries were the actual key component when smart phones made their large-scale breakthrough.
There is great interest today in the automotive industry where another kind of battery is needed, though based on similar principles. Within her own field of research, cooperation with the automotive industry has increased markedly in the past seven or eight years.
“Now, the costs for batteries have gone down a great deal, but if you can increase the range, if you can charge the batteries faster without ruining them, you have a major advantage. And work is also needed on things that aren’t chemistry, such as attitudes to these technologies. The average Swede drives 25 kilometres a day, but wants a car that can drive up to the mountains once a year.”
Since last summer, she has driven a plug-in hybrid herself and has noticed that it is not always easy to find an available parking space with a charging station. These spaces are often taken by others who do not have an electric car.
A battery may seem like a basic design – with a plus side, a minus side and an electrolyte in between. But the fact is that it is a system where a lot can happen. If you change something in one end, something happens in the other. This is why researchers need to go below the surface and study the battery’s chemistry. For example, how can you increase the energy output, while keeping the battery charged for a long time? And how can you guarantee safety in a battery that is charged very fast?
For buses and lorries, there is also the problem that thousands of batteries are connected together in a battery package – and it is important to discover if one of them breaks down.
“In a large lorry, if one of 1000 cells fails it can cause quite a bit of trouble. Intelligent control systems are therefore necessary so that the broken cell can be disconnected, which the driver might barely notice. Although they definitely notice if it is not disconnected...”
Over the years, Edström has done a lot of battery research, but now she also has a different role as well, as a mentor and supervisor for young researchers. When she was awarded the KTH Great Prize in 2018, her mentorship was highlighted.
“That was what I liked best in the entire citation. I’m like an umbrella with different groupings of researchers, who all seek and receive their own research grants. It’s fun to see doctoral students take the leap, to thinking that I’m hopelessly old-fashioned and have not kept up with the area at all. They make faster progress in their own area than I can. It’s so cool!”
In recent years, her area of research has taken off more and more. There is a great difference compared with when she started out in battery research in the 1990s.
“I’ve gone from being extremely uninteresting to being in the middle of a hype that began seven or eight years ago and that I thought would have peaked by now, but instead it has increased,” says Edström.
It’s noticeable that she has both feet on the ground and a great deal of self-perspective, which may be needed to steer a giant EU project with many research teams involved and a lot of prestige.
“The Commission has stated clearly that ‘we like the Scandinavian style of leadership’. That’s a support for me.”
She wants to balance the competitive attitude that always exists in academia with cooperation.
“We are of course competitive people and it’s an elitist activity to be at a university, but we need to find a balance in this. It’s important to have the courage to lift up others. For an organisation, it’s important that different people are recognised for what they do.”
25 May 2019
Title: Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the Department of Chemistry – Ångström Laboratory
Positions held: Adviser to the Vice-Chancellor on Research Infrastructure. Member of the Royal Society of Sciences in Uppsala and the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA). Previously Chair of the research programme STandUp for Energy and a member of the Board of the MAX IV Laboratory.
In your leisure time: I’m a culture vulture and like theatre, books, music and exhibitions. I’m very interested in art. And you can’t beat playing with the grandchildren – I know the names of all of their My Little Ponies.
Last book read: I’m a bit slow and am actually reading Minnen [Memories] by Torgny Lindgren. I should have read it a long time ago.
Hidden talent: I’m good at knitting. I make a lot of mittens because you see quick results.
Makes me angry: People who steal my electric car spaces. Disrespect, people have to follow some common rules of play. I hate domination strategies, though no doubt I use them myself without thinking about it. After all, you’re raised in a system. But if I can avoid it, that’s good.
Makes me happy: A lot of things. When things go well for my doctoral students and colleagues – that’s fun! And when things go well for my children of course. I enjoy feeling happy for somebody else.