Environment & Engineering

Getting a charge out of changing the world

Published Nov 24, 2020

A Victoria University of Wellington PhD graduate has co-founded a new company (TasmanIon) spun out of her transformative research discovery—signifying what could be the beginning of the end for toxic, hard-to-recycle and environmentally-damaging lithium-ion batteries.

Wellington UniVentures has been working alongside Dr Shalini Divya—together with her co-founder and former PhD supervisor Professor Thomas Nann—to help them develop their aluminium-ion battery research, first into a product, and now into a company.

“The team from Wellington UniVentures has helped us every step of the way,” says Shalini. “They not only undertook all of the necessary commercial endeavours such as patent filing, market validation and due-diligence, they’ve also been helping me to develop as an entrepreneur—nominating me for workshops and initiatives such as the KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Programme.”

Shalini’s placement on the KiwiNet programme—which is designed to inspire and nurture early-stage career scientists towards commercial success—came with project development funding for her to engage with industry, build a proof-of-concept of her disruptive new invention, and explore potential markets for the company to focus on.

“Creating a start-up required a whole new set of skills than the ones I gained during my PhD,” Shalini says. “The additional wrap-around support from KiwiNet and Wellington UniVentures has really helped me to smoothly transition from the world of science to the world of commercialisation.”

And it’s the commercial world that could help Shalini’s new, more sustainable battery technology to reach the people who can benefit from it the most.

“I’m incredibly passionate about climate change and energy storage,” Shalini says.

“When the sun doesn’t shine, or the wind doesn’t blow, we need sustainable batteries to store renewable energy. It could be a huge step in lifting people out of poverty by securing their energy needs.”

She says that while lithium-ion batteries are great at storing energy and efficiently delivering power—for everything from mobile phones to electric cars—the need for more sustainable alternatives has never been more urgent.

“Lithium-ion batteries are made from toxic, difficult-to-recycle substances which can explode when damaged. The raw materials—lithium and cobalt—are finite and running low, while mining them has a huge environmental cost.”

Shalini had been researching alternatives when she discovered a material that outperforms most other energy storage materials to date—enabling them to make powerful, long-life batteries from aluminium; a metal that is abundant, non-toxic, unlikely to explode, and is infinitely recyclable.

“The day I realised that the batteries I was making in my laboratory could be commercialised was unforgettable,” she says.

Dr Ashwath Sundaresan, the Wellington UniVentures Commercialisation Manager who has been working alongside Shalini, says that forming the spin-out company is a big deal. “Not only does it mean that one of the University’s PhD students has successfully created her own career, it also gives Shalini an incredible opportunity for her research to have impact.”

So how does Shalini feel to be starting up a company out of her own research? “I never imagined that I would become a businesswoman!” she says. “But nothing, in my opinion, beats the idea of creating something in the lab and then sharing your new technology's benefits with the whole world.”