Magic crystals to enable future of electric cars

CSIRO and Monash University’s Matthew Hill is receiving the Solomon award for his magic crystals, beating dozens of applications from cleaning gases and liquids to mining and drug production.

Hill has taken a Melbourne invention, metal organic frameworks (MOFs), known as magic crystals and shown that they can be used to clean air and water and in other industrial processes.

Not only does Hill claim the title of the prestigious award, but his prize includes $20,000 in cash and travel support plus mentoring.

Now his team at CSIRO and Monash University has partnered with American company EnergyX to commercialise a new production process that uses MOFs to create lithium.

“Not only can our MOF membranes separate lithium ions from water so that they can be used to make batteries, we’ve also shown that we can put these membranes inside lithium batteries and improve their lifetime and capacity,” Hill said.

Most of the world’s lithium is produced from lithium brine in a labour-intensive process requiring vast evaporation ponds.

One facility in Chile occupies 42 square kilometres, however Hill’s technology has the potential to replace 4000 hectares of pools with a filtration unit just 0.1 square kilometres in size.

The magic crystals are networks of metal atoms linked and separated by carbon-based (organic) compounds and results in a massive surface area which can be customised to absorb almost anything.

They were first made in the late 1980s by chemist Richard Robson at the University of Melbourne but were hard to make.

Hill’s first effort to make a MOF involved mixing the contents of 40 containers to make just one gram of crystals.

Today he and his team can make hundreds of kilograms of them each week.

“We’re working with a local business, Boron Molecular to scale up manufacturing of our crystals,” Hill said.

By 2040 it is estimated that there will be 56 million annual electric vehicle (EV) sales and over 1095 gigawatts of battery energy storage systems in the world, an exponential increase on the two million annual and nine gigawatts recorded in 2018.

Electric vehicles rely on the same lithium-ion battery technology found in phones and laptops.

EnergyX founder and chief executive officer Teague Egan believes that the element will be the single most important and valuable economic commodity for the 21st century.

“The world has never needed these quantities of lithium before, therefore current production methods are not scalable to the magnitude necessary,” he said.

“Matthew’s disruptive technology allows a transformative shift in the way we can now recover this quintessential resource. It will greatly improve the economics and environmental impact of lithium mining.”

According to ATSE president Hugh Bradlow, Hill is a fitting winner of the inaugural Solomon award.

“He’s taken an interesting quirk of chemistry and turned it into a patented technology that will underpin new industries,” he said.

“Lithium mining is just the latest in a long line of applications.

“Hill and his team are also working with industry to use these crystals to clean natural gas, clean air in submarines, purify pharmaceuticals and much more.”

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