Multifaceted problems demand complex solutions. Take energy, for example. It plays an essential role in maintaining health, well-being and economic activity around the world. At the same time, getting and using enough energy to power our world generates harmful emissions that are damaging our environment. Renewable energy and batteries offer cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels, but they won’t live up to their potential unless everybody makes the switch. To make that happen, sustainable power sources need to be just as convenient and powerful as the ones they’re replacing. All of this makes energy one of the biggest challenges facing humanity – and cracking it will take a multi-physics approach.
Solving multi-physics problems
“Energy is a multi-physics problem,” said Vikram Deshpande, professor of materials engineering at the University of Cambridge and a keynote presenter at the 2022 Dassault Systèmes Regional User Meeting in Manchester, UK. “It cannot be solved by just sticking to one element and to one sort of physics.”
That complexity suits Deshpande. His father’s work inspired his early interest in engineering as a civil engineer. But it wasn’t until he studied for his Ph.D. at Cambridge University – a decision inspired by the exciting developments he saw in materials engineering – that he decided to enter the research field. That was followed by a fellowship at Brown University, where the true potential of multi-physics research hit home. “I was fascinated by what was happening at the time in terms of combining atomistic calculations with continuum engineering calculations,” he said. “I didn’t look back.”
Today, Deshpande’s research around batteries reflects his fascination with the areas where mechanics meets other branches of science. While some researchers grapple with the issue of how to design better battery systems, Deshpande focuses on the materials that go into them.
“As I started talking to people working with batteries, I realized that many people don’t understand essentially why things work and why they don’t,” he said. “To design new materials for batteries, you really need to have that fundamental understanding of the coupling of electrochemistry and mechanics. It’s a wonderful problem that sits at the boundaries between electrochemistry and mechanics, and that’s what really what attracted me into this field.”
Simulation to break down boundaries
Simulation is essential to that research, and Deshpande has been familiar with SIMULIA tools ever since his days of post-grad study.
“Most of the energy problems we face today will require simulation because the physics are so complex that we will never be able to solve these problems in the old-fashioned analytical way,” Deshpande said. “I started using Abaqus as a structural design code during my Ph.D. at Cambridge. At the time, the real challenges were the boundaries between different fields, such as mechanics, chemistry, electromagnetism and so on, and the software has moved with them. It has moved into these multi-physics fields where the biggest modern challenges are in the multi-physics code.”
SIMULIA’s 3D solvers are a particular highlight. “There are a lot of multi-physics software available now, but if I want to solve a large problem, SIMULIA is really the top software because its solvers are so efficient,” Deshpande said.
Another feature that sets SIMULIA apart is not presenting users with a “black box” of inaccessible code. This is crucial for Deshpande as an academic engineer.
“In most commercial software, the manual – the theory behind the software – doesn’t exist for all practical purposes and that makes it difficult for me to use,” Deshpande said. “What really attracts people like me to SIMULIA is that it gives us inroads to be able to write plugins, to write Python scripts to couple with our own codes and to do co-simulations,” he said. “In a multi-physics domain, this is an important capability for us. The fact that Dassault Systèmes gives us hooks to be able to do something which goes beyond the current capability of the software is really how we use the software. As a researcher who is developing things which hopefully the industry will use in the future, that is the capability that I really need.”
A battery of challenges
Deshpande’s keynote at the 2022 Dassault Systèmes Regional User Meeting in Manchester, UK, focused on understanding how the electrochemistry of lithium-ion (Li-ion) cells drives mechanical failure in solid-state Li-ion batteries. In a nutshell, there are two primary goals for improving Li-ion batteries: to increase the power-to-weight ratio so the battery can store more energy at a smaller weight and to enable rapid charging.
“If we can increase the charging rate of a battery by a factor of three or four, we will start getting charging times similar to the time it takes to fill your car with gas,” Deshpande said. “That is the aim of this whole exercise. Even with a very fast charger, you can charge a car battery in maybe 1.5 hours. If we can reduce that to half an hour or 20 minutes, that becomes competitive, enabling people to switch from fossil fuel cars to electric cars more easily.”
Most batteries today have a liquid electrolyte – a medium containing ions and conducting electricity through movement. Replacing that with a solid, ceramic electrolyte could potentially increase the power-to-weight ratio tenfold. However, lithium can penetrate even these solid electrolytes at rapid charging speeds and cause the battery to short-circuit. Deshpande is intent on solving that problem.
“We initially thought we’d be able to do it just by designing the ceramic electrolyte,” Deshpande said. “However, it’s become clear that this won’t be sufficient and will have to be done through the design of the anodes. For instance, can we architecture the anode to prevent this cracking mechanism from happening? That’s what the software and codes that we are developing are trying to improve now – going from materials to architecting the inside of the anodes.”
Understand the problem, seek the solution
Simulation helps to address these challenges in two ways. First, it helps Deshpande and his team understand what is going wrong.
“Simulation tells us about the mechanism by which the failures occur,” Deshpande said. “Once you know those failure mechanisms, you can start seeing how to circumvent them.”
For instance, by simulating solid electrolyte batteries, Deshpande and his team learned that the simplest engineering solution would be architecting the electrodes. Based on that understanding, the next stage is to use simulation to define the solution.
“Now that we understand what we need to do, we can use simulation to discover what the architecture of the electrodes should look like,” Deshpande said. “This is where the next stage of simulation has moved to. We understand the mechanisms, we know what a solution will be, but we don’t yet know the details of that solution. This is where simulations are going to help us by giving us the details of the solution.”
This is a critical point when applying simulation: it does not provide a magic wand to resolve all issues in one go. Rather, it delivers the insights and tools people need to find their best solution.
“Quite often, people think that simulation will give you the solution in terms of how to circumvent the problem,” Deshpande said. “It does not, but once you understand the problem, you as a human being can then think of how to circumvent it. In batteries, the simulations have helped us not only in the design, but also in understanding how things work. That understanding is very useful when you’re trying to come up with new designs.”
A multi-physics future
Looking ahead, Deshpande sees a growing role for simulation as researchers like him work to find solutions for the planet and its people. It’s already key to the progress he’s made in battery research.
“In the solid electrolyte world, success will be that tomorrow a major car manufacturer switches from using liquid electrolyte batteries to solid electrolyte battery,” Deshpande said. “They would only do this if they can charge that battery four times faster than current liquid electrolyte batteries.”
More broadly, simulation will also enable the multi-physics approaches that allow researchers like Deshpande to provide practical solutions and advance the science behind them.
“Multi-physics is the future,” Deshpande said. “SIMULIA is combining large-scale simulation with machine learning, and I think we’ll see many advances in that area.”
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