December 29, 2019

Ever since the 1780s, when Italian scientists Galvani and Volta were disagreeing about who may have invented the portable power source, (the clue is in the surname), the study of the complex inter-reaction between chemicals and electricity has been a hot topic.

In fact, electrochemistry (EC) has emerged to be one of the most important disciplines known to man, with thousands of R&D engineers in labs, worldwide, studying their EC cells.

A significant proportion of these labs are developing battery technology, provoked by colossal demand from the automotive sector.

Much to the dismay of petrol heads, many manufacturers have pledged to ditch the internal combustion engine in favour of electricity, having been given a gentle push by carbon-neutral government targets and incentives.

Essentially, the electric battery power developed in a Tesla or a Toyota is dependent on what happens at a microscopic level when a soup of electrolytes reacts with a couple of electrodes.

Simply put, it’s the traffic flow of ions between cathode and anode that makes an electric current into which we can plug lights and phones.

The analysis of reactions in batteries and many other applications occupies many brilliant minds: change the formula of the electrolyte and you alter the electrochemical reaction, triggering a distinctly different catalyst and consequential outcomes.

For example, in the case of a battery, this can mean a longer lasting supply of energy or a more efficient method of recharging.

With this in mind, it’s important to know about current and voltage of the electrode, which can be measured by a potentiometer.

But, in order to assess where the electricity is going and what effect it is having on a molecular level, so-called ‘potentiostatic’ data is only part of the picture. More detailed analysis is needed.

Danish nanotech startup, Spectro Inlets, has developed a remarkable solution: a unique, patented — and tiny — microchip membrane interface.

When connected to a mass spectrometer and some proprietary diagnostic technology, Spectro Inlets’ minuscule interface allows detailed measurements of chemical reactions, in real time. Which means that scientists not only benefit from the data, they can immediately respond and adapt the formula of the electrolyte they are scrutinising to suit their investigations.

This will have a huge impact. Yet the device that makes everything possible fits neatly on a standard bench top.

The revolutionary membrane, measuring just 7mm square, can only work in a vacuum, which allows it to create the perfect environment to analyse the liquid and gas in the sample and produce accurate data.

This particular vacuum was developed and installed in collaboration with UK and Scandinavian vacuum experts, VACPRO.

It seems that one the biggest scientific breakthroughs in recent years could actually be quite tiny.