High-performance lithium ion batteries face a major problem: Lithium will eventually start to run out as batteries are deployed in electric cars and stationary storage units. Researchers from Empa and ETH Zurich have now discovered an alternative: the “fool’s gold battery”. It consists of iron, sulfur, sodium and magnesium – all elements that are in plentiful supply. This means that giant storage batteries could be built on the cheap and used stationary in buildings or next to power plants, for instance.
There is an urgent need to search for low-priced batteries to store electricity. Intermittency of green electricity is affecting the power grids, calling for stationary storage units to be connected into a smart grid. Electric cars are of increasing popularity, but are still too expensive. Efficient lithium ion batteries we know are not suitable for large-scale stationary storage of electricity; they are just too expensive and precious lithium is too scarce. A cheap alternative is called for – a battery made of inexpensive ingredients that are highly abundant. But electrochemistry is a tricky business: Not everything that’s cheap can be used to make a battery.
The Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa, German acronym for Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs- und Forschungsanstalt) is an interdisciplinary Swiss research and service institution for applied materials sciences and technology.
As part of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Domain, it is an institution of the Swiss federation. For most of the period since its foundation in 1880, it concentrated on classical materials testing. Since the late 1980s it has developed into a modern research and development institute.
According to its vision – Materials and technologies for a sustainable future – Empa aims at developing solutions for current problems facing industry and society in areas such as energy, the environment, mobility, health and safety. Research is concentrated in five Research Focus Areas: “Nanostructured Materials,” “Sustainable Built Environment,” “Materials for Health and Performance,” “Natural Resources and Pollutants,” and “Materials for Energy Technologies.”
Empa’s annual budget in 2010 amounted to 97 million Swiss francs of Federal funding and 50 million Swiss francs of third party means, of which 38 million Swiss francs came from research grants and 12 million Swiss francs from services.
The strategy shift from a materials testing to a research institute has been increasingly apparent since 2001: the number of scientific publications increased from 67 in 2001 to more than 500 in 2010. The number of projects financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) increased from 5 in 2001 to 91 in the same period. External funding has also grown from 33.8 million Swiss francs in 2000 to around 50 million Swiss francs (2010). Empa is currently involved in more than 50 projects funded under the EU framework programs.
Applied research and development in the institute often unfold in close collaboration with partners from industry. Empa embraces a multidisciplinary approach – scientists and engineers from a wide range of disciplines work side by side on most projects.
The Empa also provides support to both of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne, supports teaching in universities and universities of applied sciences (UAS) and is active in organizing scientific conferences and advanced training courses through the Empa Academy. Conferences, lecture series, seminars and courses are aimed at scientists, professionals from industry and the private-sector, and also the general public, for example, through the “Science Aperitifs” events.
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Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) research articles from Innovation Toronto
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