Past event

Physics and Astronomy Colloquium: Professor Peter Littlewood

Professor Peter Littlewood, of the University of Chicago , University of St Andrews and Faraday Institution, will present ‘Faraday's Challenge'.

In 1815 Michael Faraday visited Alessandro Volta in Italy and was presented with a gift of a voltaic pile — the first device to convert chemical energy into an electrical current. Armed with a controllable source of electricity, Faraday embarked on a series of experiments that led to the electrical dynamo and the electrical motor. His practical inventions were seized upon by Maxwell to construct the theory of electromagnetism, which itself has been the foundation of most of modern physics and technology. By 1900 the world had electrically powered vehicles.

However, the availability of cheap fossil fuels and the challenges of building low cost electrical storage systems gave combustion engines a century of dominance that is only now coming to an end. We now have to unwind that century-long hiatus and build an electrified economy based on renewable power.

The impact of renewable energy technologies — principally solar, wind, and electrical storage — is now exponentiating. The world's first terawatt of modern renewable capacity was completed in 2018, and the second terawatt likely this year or next, at a cost of about US$1 per Watt. (The world's consumption of power of all kinds is about 20 terawatts on average.) However, these technologies are not without their own environmental impact.

In this talk Professor Peter Littlewood will use the battery as an example of the research ecosystem because it has many parallels across renewable technologies. Despite its venerable history, electrochemical technology is still immature. Electrochemistry must manipulate materials and chemical reactions on the nanoscale, yet its products are manufactured by the ton. A battery is a complex device with multiple components that is more complex than an integrated circuit, but has to be produced on scales vastly larger than a silicon fab.

The fundamental components of a battery — anode, cathode, electrolyte, control system — can be chosen from a vast palette of chemistries, but the complicated interplay that makes a functioning device will emerge only after the pieces are joined together at a point very distant from the fundamental invention.

To accelerate the transition to an electrically powered sustainable economy will require mission-driven, multi-disciplinary research at scale, which is focused on very specific major challenges, and in seamlessly translating breakthroughs into innovation and commercialisation.