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Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry

 

Professor Clare Grey, courtesy Gabriella Bocchetti

Professor Clare Grey of this Department has been awarded the Körber European Science Prize 2021, worth one million euros.

The prize is awarded for excellent and innovative research approaches with high application potential. Grey is one of the UK's leading battery researchers, and is a pioneer in the use of NMR spectroscopy to investigate batteries. Her work has been instrumental in the development of next-generation batteries and cost-effective, durable storage systems for renewable energy. Research led by Grey has helped to significantly increase the performance of lithium-ion batteries, which power mobile phones, laptops and electric cars.

“There have been significant advances in lithium-ion batteries since they were commercialised in the 1990s,” said Grey. “Their energy density has tripled and prices have fallen by 90 percent.” Grey’s research has made key contributions to these developments, and is an important contribution to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Grey, 56, studied chemistry at Oxford University. At the age of 22, she published her first scientific article in the journal Nature. After completing her doctoral studies in 1991, she went to Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and has also worked as a visiting scientist at the US chemical company Dupont.

In 1994, Grey joined the State University of New York at Stony Brook, becoming a full professor in 2001. In 2009, she became Geoffrey Moorhouse Gibson Professor in this Department. She has been a Fellow of the Royal Society since 2011.

At the time Grey was still a student, most chemists and physicists used X-rays to determine the internal structure of solids. Grey was one of the first in her field to use NMR instead, which allows researchers to observe the electrochemical processes at work in materials without interference.

During her time in the USA, Grey met researchers from the Duracell company who inspired her to use the technology to study materials in batteries. “Previously, the usual investigations with X-rays only provided an average picture,” Grey said. “With the help of NMR, I was able to detect the fine details in these often-disordered materials.”

Initially, she examined individual materials by opening the batteries at a certain stage of their charging and discharging cycle. The aim was to find out which chemical processes cause the batteries to age and how their lifespan and capacity could be increased. Later, she improved the NMR technology so that she could use it to examine batteries during operation without destroying them, which helped speed up the studies enormously.

In addition to her work improving lithium-ion batteries, Grey is developing a range of different next-generation batteries, including lithium-air batteries (which use oxidation of lithium and reduction of oxygen to induce a current), sodium batteries, magnesium batteries and redox flow batteries.

Her NMR studies allow her to follow the processes at work inside these batteries in real time, and help determine the reactions that cause batteries to degrade. She is working on further optimising the NMR method to design even more powerful, faster-charging and environmentally friendly batteries.

In 2016 Grey co-founded Nyobolt (originally CB2Tech), which is developing ultra-fast charging batteries using a new class of materials and technology based on research conducted in her Cambridge research group. Another company supplies the NMR measurement technology she designed to laboratories around the world.

To achieve climate goals and transition away from fossil fuels, Grey believes it is vital that “basic research into new battery technologies is already in full swing today – tomorrow is too late.”

Since 1985, the Körber European Science Prize has honoured a breakthrough in the physical or life sciences in Europe. The prize will be presented to Professor Grey on 10 September in the Great Festival Hall of Hamburg City Hall. To date, six Körber Prize winners have been awarded the Nobel Prize.