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Shalini Divya says she can proudly say that, as a young woman of colour, she thinks she has had the best opportunities she could have been offered. Photo / Supplied
Growing up in India, Shalini Divya recalls daily power cuts as an annoying part of city life, but she says people living in rural areas, where energy poverty is rife, have it far worse.
The Wellington-based chief executive is using that experience to fuel her vision to make renewable energy accessible for all through her company TasmanIon, which is developing safer, more sustainable and affordable batteries based on aluminium.
From mobile phones and laptops to EVs, we rely on batteries to power everyday life, but the lithium used in the production of rechargeable batteries can be problematic. Lithium-ion batteries offer high energy output, says Divya, but lithium isn’t abundant, it’s costly and its mining has been linked to unsustainable practices. Lithium-ion batteries also present a fire risk if they short-circuit and overheat.
“That’s why it’s important for researchers like us to be discovering and innovating novel battery technologies that consumers can use in certain applications instead,” says the chemist-turned-company-co-founder.
Novel battery technologies are a hotbed for research and development, and TasmanIon isn’t alone in exploring the potential of aluminium-ion batteries. Researchers at universities around the world are looking at the metal because of its relative abundance, recyclability and stability.
But Divya says much of the current research focuses on developing aluminium-ion batteries that also employ complex and costly nanotechnologies to deliver the high-energy output required to meet the needs of the booming EV market.
TasmanIon, however, has its sights set elsewhere. It wants to develop aluminium-ion batteries for the renewable energy sector, particularly in developing countries that are battling lack of access to modern, clean, power sources (energy poverty). Divya’s vision received a significant boost in July when TasmanIon was accepted into EnergyLab, a programme run in partnership with the University of Technology Sydney that helps entrepreneurs accelerate ideas to mitigate climate change, and includes about $80,000 in investment as well as introductions to other investors in climate-tech.
“The world is moving towards more renewable sources of energy, which is great, but you need a way to store the energy created by those sources for use in times when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. That’s where batteries become important.
“When it comes to that kind of energy storage, you want to prioritise safety over energy output, but you also want your batteries to live longer and be cheap. TasmanIon is able to check all those boxes.”
How TasmanIon can tick those boxes is founded on intellectual property developed from Divya’s chemistry research. A battery has three main components, she explains: an anode, which provides the negative terminal; a cathode, which provides the positive terminal; and a liquid medium, called an electrolyte, that connects the two.
During her PhD research at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, she was investigating dozens of potentially suitable cathodes that would work in conjunction with an aluminium anode (she even tested human hair) when she hit on TasmanIon’s secret sauce: a highly effective cathode candidate sourced from a readily available, cost-effective raw material. TasmanIon has since filed a provisional patent on the cathode material to protect this core intellectual property.
Divya says she loved chemistry from an early age. And her older sister’s decision to study engineering – and meet their parents’ expectation that one of them become a doctor or an engineer – left her free to follow her passion. Chemistry “teaches you how things work”, she says, “and is the crux of any new technology you can think of”.
After pursuing a BSc (honours) in the subject at the University of Delhi, she began working on battery technology during her masters – ironically, developing nanomaterials for use in lithium-ion batteries.
“I took an extra step of visiting the institute that was testing these batteries and I got really excited to see how they worked with my nanomaterials. I was like, ‘This is what I want to do – I want to get into the application of these technologies. And if I’m going to do a PhD, I want to make my own batteries with my own materials and make them better.’”
After unsuccessfully applying to almost a dozen top universities in India, where competition to land a PhD place is fierce, Divya turned her attention offshore, ultimately landing a scholarship to study at Victoria.
“I wrote to professors around the world telling them how excited I was to learn more about lithium. Then [Professor] Thomas Nann, who became my PhD supervisor, replied saying, ‘Come on, Shalini, everyone works on lithium-ion batteries; why don’t you work on aluminium-ion batteries, instead?’
“He sent me a review paper he’d written a few years before and it got me really excited. Coming from India, which is dealing with energy poverty, I realised aluminium was going to be the answer to a lot of the issues we currently face. I couldn’t dissociate myself from the fact that these batteries are going to be useful to the community I come from.”
Divya made the scientific breakthrough that became the foundation for TasmanIon in the second year of her PhD, but it wasn’t until her final year that she considered she might be the one to ultimately get its products into people’s hands. She recalls a definitive moment at a commercialisation workshop, instantly recognisable to any viewer of such TV shows as Shark Tank or Dragons’ Den.
“Over the course of a couple of days, we were supposed to create this artificial company and then pitch to some mock investors. I clearly remember that one-minute pitch; the excitement I felt at the idea of selling something I had made from scratch was phenomenal. And that’s when I realised this is what I want to do.”
Through the latter part of her PhD and after graduating, she received education and other support from Wellington UniVentures – Victoria’s company responsible for creating startups founded on university research – to help set up TasmanIon. In 2021, her work commercialising her research was also recognised with a KiwiNet Breakthrough Innovator Award at the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards.
TasmanIon now has four employees and is focused on solving technical issues with the technology to develop a prototype battery, which it hopes to have within the next year. From there, the company will focus on scaling the technology for manufacture, which will be outsourced to a global battery maker.
Divya recently gained New Zealand residency and says she considers it a blessing to be able to pursue work with global potential.
“The exposure I’ve had in New Zealand over the past six years has been unbelievable. I can proudly say that, as a young woman of colour, I think I’ve had the best opportunities I could have been offered. I’ve made mistakes – and I still do – but I’m lucky I have a support system of mentors who keep me on the right path and doing what it is that I’m supposed to do.”
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