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20 November 2020 6 min read

©  Nick Pitsas

No matter where you are, you can be sure that you're near a lithium-ion battery.

They power your mobile phone and your laptop. But they also power your power tools and electric vehicles! Without these pocket powerhouses, life as we know it would not be the same.

Our researcher, Dr Marzi Barghamadi, is at the forefront of our lithium battery research.

She talks to us about her work and what a day in her life is like. But she also outlines how she'll promote her research as part of the prestigious L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship, a prize she won in October this year.

What’s so good about lithium-ion batteries?

Lithium-ion batteries work much like other batteries. Inside, they have separated positive and negative electrodes. Lithium ions transfer between them through chemicals called electrolytes while the battery charges or discharges. As a result, it creates electricity.

Lithium-ion batteries are easy and fast to recharge, and provide a high output of power over a long lifespan. They are used as an electrochemical storage device as the world moves towards clean and renewable energy sources.

"While lithium-ion batteries are one of the most viable electrochemical energy storage devices, they have limited energy density," Marzi said.

Marzi is currently working on two types of rechargeable lithium batteries. She's looking at the current lithium-ion batteries you can buy commercially and lithium metal batteries. The latter offers higher energy density, which means more energy can be stored.

"This makes batteries more competitive power sources. It will also encourage more businesses and industries to invest and use batteries to hasten the transition to clean energy sources," she said.

Once a scientist, always a scientist

While Marzi's current interest lies in electrochemistry and materials sciences, she was always fascinated by science.

"Science subjects were always my favourite at school. But like many teenagers, my wishes for my future career changed a few times," she said.

"At one stage I wanted to do medicine then genetic engineering. But I ended up doing chemistry!”

Marzi studied chemistry at university, completing a master's degree in analytical chemistry and received two PhD scholarship offers for electrospinning and nanofibers. But the third offer to do her PhD scholarship on lithium batteries would shape her career and land her squarely in an area that held much interest to her: renewable energy.

"That was the turning point as working in a green energy technology-related field became very attractive to me," she said.

Her PhD supervisor supported her to connect with a battery research team at CSIRO to further her research at the time.

"I always wanted to contribute in multidisciplinary research areas where I could both expand my professional network and learn more from experts in the field," Marzi said.

“While opportunities arose outside of CSIRO after my PhD, I decided to continue my research here with all the great people I work with!”

"I have been working on electrochemical energy storage devices, with a focus on lithium batteries, for more than eight years now. It is very encouraging to know that my research is addressing climate change."

A day in the life of Marzi Barghamadi

Even though Marzi's research centres on batteries, her work can be quite different each day.

"My time is devoted to project leadership, performing experimental work, lab management and supervising students and post-doctoral researchers," Marzi said.

"So lab days can be quite different."

Her current lab work is mainly centred on making and testing battery cells.

“Usually materials are required to be prepared the day before. So my day in the lab starts with transferring all the materials inside an argon-filled glovebox where battery cells are assembled,” Marzi said.

"I very much enjoy this step. Especially when I am working with new battery chemistry where I need to be creative in cell engineering and design to ensure a cell with expected performance is built."

But Marzi has a special trick to boost her productivity and make sure that she's tackling each problem with as much clarity as possible.

"I always like to take a break after this step before testing my cells. Cell testing is the quick step. But I should be patient when collecting data as it takes a few days, weeks or even months," she said.

Generally, she uses multiple technologies to undertake her work. They range from materials and electrodes characterisation/analysis such as XRD and SEM. She also uses electrode fabrication tools like film coaters and cell assembly equipment like ultrasonic welders and vacuum sealers. And even battery testers and de-crimpers, as well as post-mortem analysis.

L’Oreal and lithium

The L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowships strives to support and recognise accomplished science researchers. The aim is to address the underrepresentation of women in science.

The fellowships are also extremely competitive. Only five women across Australia and New Zealand were awarded a fellowship this year, with Marzi being one of them.

"I feel privileged that the selection committee recognised my work and contribution to lithium battery research," Marzi said.

The ceremony is postponed until further notice thanks to COVID-19. But Marzi was notified over the phone, which made for a "very exciting Thursday!"

Marzi has grand plans for her fellowship.

"The fellowship will give me funding support for three months research at the University of Cambridge with Professor Clare Grey's Research Group," she said.

"Professor Grey is a pioneer in the development of some of the in-situ techniques for energy storage devices. Through this connection, I aim to further progress my work on longer-lasting lithium metal batteries."

This allows Marzi to help address one of the key issues of lithium metal batteries.

"I will study the lithium metal surface during cycling of lithium metal batteries using powerful techniques that will provide a deeper understanding of how lithium metal degrades and forms dendrites. Dendrites cause capacity loss and safety concerns," she said.

The research will help with paths towards commercialisation for lithium metal batteries. Additionally, it will help scientists develop batteries that produce more energy, are safer and last longer.

Any advice for women in STEM?

Marzi feels quite optimistic about the opportunities awarded to women looking to enter a career in STEM.

"Despite ongoing gender imbalance in STEM subjects at university, we're on the right track. Today, we have more women graduating with a STEM degree than ever before," she said.

But she believes there is more to do.

"It is great that more workplaces are supporting gender equity, but it shouldn't only be about the number of female employees. There also needs to be a focus on supporting women to progress to higher levels," she said.

Women still hold far fewer leadership positions than men, particularly in STEM fields where only 18 per cent of leadership positions are held by women. CSIRO is addressing gender equity through our work with the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot, the Male Champions of Change (MCC) initiative, and as a Champion of the Women in STEM Decadal Science Plan.

Marzi had this to say for young women looking to enter a career in STEM.

"Follow your passion and trust your capabilities. Believe that you are the one who leads your future career. Everyone makes mistakes along the way, that's how we learn," she said.

"There are a lot of supportive resources out there. So go and find them and see how they can help you to achieve your goals!"

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