BBB, the “Belgian Better Battery”

The modest beginnings

The challenge of efficient electricity storage has been a fascination for me since childhood - don't ask me why, because I cannot explain this. I remember bothering relatives and family members with questions like: why can't these batteries store more electricity? isn't there a solution yet?


Looking into today

Fast forward to 2009. While working at Sirris, with access to abundant access to scientific and technical literature, I had noticed something puzzling in many papers on electricity storage: they seemed somewhat "related". I mean by this that - at least some of - the aspects of the battery storage experimental structures in one paper were also found in other papers. It was as if in a number of attempts, a fair share of the "battery recipe" had been copied from previous sources, yet this not being plagiarism. Fundamentally, the model that often seems to occupy the minds of researchers is an existing design, which could be Volta's battery, or the lead-acid battery structure, or the Lithium ion exchange battery. I would love to spend time measuring how true or false that intuition is, but I decided to move forward.
I went back to those research articles and patents, and checked also a few offbeat ventures, some making huge promises on electricity storage. I started suspecting that the whole sector suffers from the frantic search for the "secret recipe" that will yield the "best" battery. Frantic and probably based on a lot of intuition. This analysis, based on uncertain facts and assumptions, led to the idea that perhaps the main challenge in the search for a better battery is a "better battery research strategy"?


Needed: a strategy

That opened up a new domain to explore. How do you design a strategy for better research in some topic, then one designed to achieve a better battery? Simple: you steal the successful strategy from another domain.
Well, not so simple. But with the help of colleagues, and the further help of the particularly sharp minds of Solvay BSEM students (ULB), we explored a concept imported directly from bioinformatics and pharmaceutical research. In its state of the art research strategies, that domain implemented a conscious, deliberate research strategy system based on explicit, structured and connected knowledge: ontologies.
We thus studied famous ontologies in bioinformatics, and tried to design a simple ontology in electrochemistry. We succeeded (actually, my Solvay students succeeded). We call the whole approach, based on our "toy" ontology, the "BBB - Belgian Better Battery".
We then tried a bit of reasoning in our toy ontology, and verified we could generate research ideas that make sense within the current knowledge in electrochemistry.


Universities, actually

This led to another set of investigations. At least here in Belgium, electrochemistry knowledge in our toy ontology actually maps to multiple universities and research labs. I personally visited ULB, VUB, KUL and UMH, and realised these points:
- each of them possesses unique electrochemistry knowledge that clearly maps to knowledge nodes and relationships in our toy ontology;
- they were, at best, vaguely aware of their colleagues' knowledge and specialisation areas in other universities;
- contrarian labs and teams could even be incorporated into research as critics of research results produced by the "partisan labs/teams".


From science to society

I complemented this round of visits with a visit to technology labs working for industry. They immediately saw the link that this approach would create from basic science all the way to technology research for practical applications.
Going back to universities, the toy ontology and the reasoning around it establishes the link from fundamental science research all the way to societal relevance - which seems to be an advantage for researchers striving to establish research programmes that matter to society.
I took this endeavour one step further, by consulting TRIZ specialists, to hear what they had to say on it. Could such an approach support TRIZ-like technology ideation methods and help in designing new battery architectures? You already guessed it, they said yes enthusiastically.


How can we go further?

This is as far as we could go. I'm not aware of any circle where such research strategy ideas are discussed and brought to existence, and we could not connect this to existing research programmes. Perhaps opening up the idea to the whole world could release us from this situation where this peg fits no pre-existing hole? Who should be involved in this discussion? Share your thoughts here below.