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Sustainable futures

COP26: New battery technology transforming the future of flight

With the UK aviation industry aiming to be net-zero by 2050, the future of flight is undergoing a rapid transformation, and scientists from the University of Nottingham’s NAMI lab are at its heart. 

Working alongside experts from across the industry, Dr Graham Newton and his team are studying new battery technology which could revolutionise air travel.

Traditionally, electric vehicles have been powered by rechargeable lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries – the same kind as those found in mobile phones – but they have a number of disadvantages.

Dr Newton and colleagues are instead exploring the use of Lithium Sulfur (Li-S) batteries.

He explains: “Li-S batteries are rechargeable batteries that may offer a cheaper and lighter alternative to Li-ion batteries, allowing them to store more energy for the same weight at a fraction of the cost.

“They resemble Li-ion batteries but avoid the use of expensive and rare transition metals, replacing these with sulfur; an abundant and cheap element.”

Traditional Li-ion batteries are made with nickel and cobalt, both materials which require significant mining efforts, creating environmental concerns in itself. Sulfur is one of the most abundant elements, meaning Li-S batteries are a far more sustainable, cost-effective option. They are also safer, less likely to fail and easier to transport or store.

"“These batteries have the potential to transform the sustainability of commercial flight by allowing us to move away from fossil fuels.”"
Dr Graham Newton

Currently Li-S batteries are not at the stage where they could be used in cars and planes, as they tend to degrade rapidly when in use and have a short life cycle, but the work being done by Dr Newton and the team is aiming to transform this.

By looking at the chemical structure of the battery they aim to fully realise the potential of the battery, increasing its lifespan and energy capacity, and are UK leaders in the field.

He said: “We are making chemical additives that ‘shuttle’ electrons through Li-S batteries. “Our chemical shuttles facilitate the charge and discharge processes of the battery, allowing us to access more of the stored energy in these systems.

“When fully realised, these batteries will exceed the performance of Li-ion batteries and are considered to be the most promising battery technology for the electrification of commercial aviation.

“The aviation industry accounts for more than 1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions each year. These batteries have the potential to transform the sustainability of commercial flight by allowing us to move away from fossil fuels.”

When closer to the final product, Li-S batteries are predicted to be able to reach double the specific energy of Li-ion batteries, meaning they could store the same amount of charge but be half the weight. For industries like aviation and haulage this will have huge advantages, and makes them one of the most promising options for the future.

Dr Newton said: “The energy stored in a battery is reported in Watt hours per kg. Li-ion batteries can store around 250 Wh/kg. A 500 Wh/kg battery could power a hybrid/all-electric short-haul commercial flight.

“This target can already be achieved with Li-S cells, but chemical and engineering challenges relating to the long-term stability of the battery performance remain to be solved.”

Whilst batteries like this are unlikely to deliver the huge energy required for a long-haul passenger plane to take off, they would be used for in-flight propulsion, as well as delivering the power for a plane’s electrical systems.

Dr Newton said: “Li-S is not expected to deliver long-haul commercial flight unless as a part of a hybrid power scheme, but it might be that the batteries are deployed when flying over cities to minimise air pollution.

"“We expect that short-haul commercial and private flight could be primarily powered by Li-S batteries.”"
Dr Graham Newton

“We expect that short-haul commercial and private flight could be primarily powered by Li-S batteries. The battery packs would be built into the structure of the aircraft.”

Dr Newton is working alongside colleagues Darren Walsh and Lee Johnson, both Associate Professors of Physical Chemistry, at the University’s NAMI Battery Lab. They are part of consortium of seven universities and industrial partners that are committed to making Li-S batteries a reality through the £10m Lithium Sulfur Technology Accelerator (LiSTAR) project, funded by the Faraday Institution.

NAMI – or Nottingham Applied Materials and Interfaces group - comprises synthetic chemists, electrochemists and battery chemists working together towards solving some of the most challenging questions in energy storage science.

Graham Newton

Dr Graham Newton is an Associate Professor of Inorganic and Materials Chemistry in the School of Chemistry

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