Batteries have gone from ice cold to a hot topic

Battery researcher Kristina Edström is active in one of today’s hottest areas. The sums being invested in it are enormous and there are high hopes for the results. Batteries are going to replace fossil fuels in vehicles and store energy from renewable sources, and in doing so, help solve the biggest challenge of our time: climate change.
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In September the EU launched its huge Battery 2030+ project with a budget equivalent to more than SEK 400 million. The goal is to develop the batteries of the future. They are smart, contain more energy, have a longer life and a lower environmental impact than today’s equivalents. The project involves more than 100 groups from universities, research institutes and companies in 20 European countries. Chalmers University of Technology, Uppsala University and Northvolt are participating from Sweden.

The work in Sweden is being coordinated by Kristina Edström in Uppsala and currently, during the pandemic, in virtual settings. The last time the participants met in person was in January.

“Now we’re running the initiative in frequent but brief online meetings. The first phase ended on 31 May and the second one started on 1 September. The gap reduced the pressure a bit but it’s clear that the work would have been easier and misunderstandings fewer if we had been able to meet face to face”, she says.

Her team at Ångström Laboratory studies the complex reactions taking place at the interface of materials and components in batteries, and that affect all of the properties of the batteries. It’s a large team – around 80 people – and it is well-funded. In addition to Edström herself, several of the younger members have received prestigious support, for example from the EU. There is a lot of interest in the work being done, but this was not always the case. There are trends in research funding.

“That’s the way it is unfortunately. In Sweden we tend to take a short-term approach. There was a time when batteries were considered uninteresting and it was difficult to get funding. I’ve received long-term funding from the Swedish Research Council which funds good research and doesn’t care about politics. This has been essential for my research. I’ve also received basic funding from Uppsala University”.

The turning point came six or seven years ago when the automotive industry started to show an interest.

“At the Swedish Electromobility Centre we started to discuss whether the automotive industry should be paying attention to the units they were purchasing. I think we were among the first in Europe. Interest has increased since then”.

Kristina Edström grew up in Mölndal. Her mother Vivi Edström was a researcher in literary science and later a professor at Stockholm University – and a feminist. Her friends included prominent researchers in the humanities. They often sat in at the kitchen table in Mölndal discussing what life was like for researchers. Her daughter Kristina sat under the table and wondered what they meant by “quotas” and “strange appointment policies that disadvantaged women”.

“The dialogue at home was feminist in nature and that was the context in which I grew up. It was obvious that my mother would encourage her daughters. She believed it was important for women to get as much education as they could in order to do something meaningful. That had a big influence on me”, she says. 

It is no surprise that she chose to become a researcher. But her chosen field was chemistry.

“When I was growing up in Mölndal I had very good, inspiring teachers in chemistry, physics and biology. They opened up a whole new world for me. I needed my own form of expression and my own language. This was my teenage revolt”.

Edström could also have become a teacher. She is interesting in teaching but seldom teaches these days. It’s important to make room for the next generation of researchers – she thinks that is important.

“There are a lot of great role models who have influenced me. There are those who have managed to build huge research environments, parts of which have been hived off in all sorts of directions, and that have many novices around them in Sweden and other countries. Börje Johansson, a physics professor at the Royal Institute of Technology and Uppsala University, is one example. I admire him and I’m inspired to try to work in that way”.

“That's why it’s important to be able to hand over the reins to younger top talents”, she says.

“They might even do something revolutionary. It’s also important to be able let go, bite the bullet and accept decisions that we don’t always like”.

She is trying to draw attention to the chemistry in batteries – not least to increase interest in the subject which has been in decline for a long time. The trend now seems to be turning around. Many chemistry programmes at Swedish universities have seen a sharp increase in the number of first-choice applicants.

“I want to make chemistry visible. It’s the chemistry in batteries that determines how they work. It’s therefore important and exciting to try to understand the different chemical reactions that can take place and which of these provide the best battery performance”. 

KRISTINA EDSTRÖM

Age: 62

Education: Degree in Chemistry, 1986. PhD in Organic Chemistry, 1990.

Career: Research assistant 1995, Associate Professor 1999 and Professor in Organic Chemistry at Uppsala University 2005. A number of leadership assignments at universities, including Vice Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology (2014–2018) and Advisor to the Vice-Chancellor on research infrastructure since 2018. Member of the board of the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research 2012–2014. Member of the board of Max IV Laboratory 2010–2016.

Distinctions: Honorary Doctor NTNU, Trondheim, 2017. KTH Great Prize 2018. The Rudbeck Medal 2019. IVA fellow and member of the Royal Society of Sciences in Uppsala. Wallenberg Scholar 2019.

GOLD MEDAL

Professor Kristina Edström for her outstanding battery research which has brought the world closer to a solution for energy storage, an area of great significance for society. The development, under her leadership, of the next generation of battery technology for applications in the automotive industry is world-leading. Her ability to inspire and guide young people enables her to successfully build strong research teams.

PHOTO: MIKAEL WALLERSTEDT

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