The possibilities at a researcher’s disposal

I managed the X-Ray Shared Experimental Facility at MIT for 8 years. The first instrument I bought for the lab was a Malvern Panalytical X’Pert Pro MPD X-ray diffractometer. The versatility of the X’Pert Pro led to it being the most heavily used instrument in the lab. It supported a diverse breadth of research by students and researchers from 15 different departments; and was easy enough to use that most students could operate it themselves after a few hours of training. The X’Pert Pro MPD X-ray diffractometer is still heavily used today, thirteen years after I bought it.

The modularity and open-beam design of the instrument was a great asset, especially when I was supporting research on fuel cell and battery materials. We could build custom electrochemical stages and safely mount them in the X-ray diffractometer to collect in situ data. I ran an extension cord, a USB cable, and electrical leads into the enclosure so that we could hook-up a variety of devices such as potentiostats, heaters, and sensors. The instrument operation software was flexible and robust enough that we could write custom measurement batches to accommodate the unusual geometries that we sometimes had to use. It was rewarding when we would finally collect the data using a new trick, a custom-built accessory, or just shear stubbornness.

Always wanting more than seems possible

But, it could also be frustrating. We might build a custom cell for charging and discharging a battery, only to find out that it didn’t work because the contacts weren’t quite right or the window was not transparent enough for the X-ray signal. Sometimes the student needed just one measurement, and I couldn’t invest the time and resources to build the accessory that they needed. Even though the system allowed tremendous customization, it just was not always practical.

The big turnaround

When I joined Malvern Panalytical, I had many of these challenges in mind. I remembered the compromises we sometimes had to make. I remembered the experiments that had to be done at a beamline such as APS or SNS because it couldn’t be done with a laboratory instrument. I remembered the requests when I had to admit defeat and say “No, we can’t do that”.

With these in mind, I have been happy to contribute my own small part to the work of the development team and special products team at Malvern Panalytical. The special products team specifically is made up of compulsive problem-solvers and “mad scientists” whose daily mantra is “Yes we can do that, if we are just clever enough”. Because of their work, we now offer four different sample stage accessories for in situ battery and electrochemical testing, as well as supporting third party accessories such as the EL-CELL ECC-Opto-Std. We offer integration with several different brands of potentiostats. A researcher working in the battery, fuel cell, and electrochemical fields does not have to create these devices and methods from scratch – they can buy the accessory and focus on the science.

With the help of battery researchers…

These accessories are not useful if we do not understand how they complement the larger picture of battery research and cannot advise researchers how to use them. With that in mind, we formed a partnership with Professor Prashant Kumta and the Energy Innovation Corridor of the University of Pittsburgh. When they bought an Empyrean diffractometer, we included all of the battery sample analysis stages and other accessories so that we could learn from how they use them. A short drive from my house, I can visit Professor Kumta’s group and see how our accessories are useful, how they can be improved, and can engage in finding new ways to use X-ray diffraction to complement battery materials research and possibilities for process and quality control. And sometimes I have some free time on the instrument, allowing me to use the same modularity and versatility that the current Empyrean diffractometer inherited from the old X’Pert Pro design, to develop solutions for new problems. I use these accessories, along with our advances in high energy optics and detectors, and experiment with techniques for other applications such as flexible electronics and additive manufacturing.

Can we get a ‘Yes we can’?

My frustration at MIT was the times when we couldn’t find a solution to do an experiment. Slowly we are chipping away at those obstacles and bringing new techniques and solutions to our instruments. But maybe you can let us know what challenges you face, and what measurements you want to turn from “No, we can’t do that” to a “Yes we can”.

Interested to know how our solutions enable up-to-date battery manufacturing? Why not contact one of our experts.

Further reading:

If you enjoyed this blog, make sure to read our other battery research stories which we’ve listed for your convenience in this blog: Our top 2020 battery stories.