SIMULIA R&D Technology Senior Director Victor Oancea has been working with the company for 25 years. His job is an exciting one, examining new directions for simulation to go. Lately his focus has been on battery thermo-electrochemistry swelling behavior – a complex-sounding term that has a lot to do with the future of vehicle electrification.
Batteries are critical to our daily lives, says Oancea, and in the past decade or so they have been scaled up on a remarkable level to power things such as vehicles. The lithium ion battery was invented in 1987, though it was impractical at first and took a few years to reach the market. Since then, incremental changes have added up to a battery strong enough to power a vehicle.
“If you can imagine a battery in a schematic-type sense, it’s like a tennis match,” he says. “When you see the tennis ball going from left to right, from right to left – that’s what lithium ions do in lithium ion batteries, though at a much slower pace.”
While the basic concept of batteries stays the same, the technology is advancing at a rapid rate, and simulation is playing a large role in developing batteries that are longer-lasting, higher-capacity, and higher-energy-density. This translates to electric vehicles with ranges that are closer to 500 or 600 miles as opposed to the previous 200 to 300 mile standard.
Oancea also studies batteries from a materials perspective.
“What kind of additives can we put in the electrolytes such that these processes that happen in the interfaces between the porous materials and the batteries, and these electrolytes, are more efficient?” he says. “What can we make from an innovation perspective, and again from a chemistry but also from an engineering design perspective, such that the risk of short-circuit during fast-charging applications or during a slight deformation of such batteries is mitigated to a large extent?”
Questions like these must be asked in order to create batteries that are not only efficient but safe – there have been instances in the past of batteries overheating to the point that they have caught on fire, which is something that absolutely must not happen for obvious reasons. While battery technology has not advanced at the same rate as, for example, computers, small innovations have created important changes.
These innovations, says Oancea, include using silicon-based particles instead of a carbon-based anode for a battery’s negative electrode, increasing lithium storage. Other new technologies involve the use of polymers and ceramics instead of liquid electrolytes, or utilizing fully lithium-based anodes. These innovations have the potential to both reduce space and increase energy density.
Simulation plays a large role in helping to develop these new and improved batteries, not only by reducing physical testing but by helping to gain insights on certain things that cannot be measured due to their small scale.
“Many things cannot be measured, just because they happen at much, much smaller scales and the instrumentation is not quite there as far as experimentation is concerned,” says Oancea. “And therefore you can assess that in a certain construction, is the electrical current density higher in this area compared to this other area? How can I design a better tab collector in a certain location such that I’m making these current densities more uniform? Is the concentration of what I think is happening all over the place in my cell similar or does it vary significantly? And if it does vary, what can I do from a design perspective so I can have a slightly improved behavior simply by a design change?”
Simulation helps to screen out nonviable alternatives from the very beginning of the design process, and to complement experimentation, once candidates have been identified, to gain insight on what cannot be measured.
In these ways, simulation helps to accelerate the battery development process and to improve the final products, even if by just a small amount.
Looking into the future, Oancea believes that battery technology may advance to the point where it “completely transforms the automotive industry.” This may come in the form of electric vehicles with dramatically extended ranges, for example.
“At every single level, clever people are always mandatory in the process,” Oancea concludes. “Simulation is not a replacement for that. It is a tool that if used cleverly and in a disciplined fashion, or systematic fashion – combine the two together to accelerate the design of a next great product, batteries included, I think that’s something that is quite viable.”
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