This chemistry teacher is rewiring battery technology

Bimlesh Lochab recently became the first Indian female scientist to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), the prestigious UK-based professional association that seeks to advance the chemical sciences. She is currently working in the cutting-edge field of making lithium batteries more environmentally friendly and reliable.
Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs), which power electric vehicles and portable electronics today, have two major problems. They can catch fire due to short circuits, overcharging and electrolyte breakdown. And they use dangerous cobalt oxide.
Lochab’s team, in association with Sagar Mitra, a professor in the Department of Energy Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay, has developed lithium-sulfur (Li-S) batteries that solve both problems. . Based on the principles of green chemistry, Li-S uses sulfur (an industrial waste) as an alternative to cobalt oxide, as well as cashew nut liquid and clove oil (organic raw material -renewable non-toxic and environmentally friendly) as a cathode material (a cathode is the metal electrode through which current passes).
“Our batteries have a high energy capacity. They cannot ignite thanks to the agro-sourced cathode material. And if they do, they tend to self-dim the fire. These batteries can be used in electric vehicles, tech gadgets, drones and other electronic devices,” says Lochab, a professor of chemistry at Shiv Nadar University, Delhi-NCR.
Their work was announced in August 2020 and published in the scientific journal Energy Storage Materials by the Dutch publishing house Elsevier.
Lochab’s date with stacks began as early as his school days in Delhi. “I used to crack the pile to find out what the black electrode was inside, try to correlate and ask questions,” she recalls. Lochab then did a BSc in Chemistry at the University of Delhi, an MSc and MTech at IIT Delhi, and then a PhD in Organic Chemistry at the University of Oxford.
The chemicals she worked with during her research abroad were expensive. Back in India, she started looking for cheaper alternatives. “Elemental sulphur, for example, is an inexpensive waste product from the petroleum industry. India is a major producer of cashews, but the shell of the nut, which is a rich source of cardenol (used in the chemical industry in resins, coatings, etc.), is usually thrown away. Since it contains phenolic compounds, even animals won’t eat it,” says Lochab.
Good research, she says, is happening in various labs in India. But moving these ideas from lab to pilot scale and then to the real world requires greater collaboration between industry and academia, and adequate funding by government and others. Much remains to be done on this front, she said.