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Donal Finegan wins the Young Scientist Award at the ESRF's 2020 User Meeting


Donal Finegan, researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the United States, has been awarded the Young Scientist Award for his innovative research on lithium-ion battery failure and degradation. He was awarded the prize at the 2020 ESRF’s User Meeting, which is taking place this week at the ESRF, bringing 280 scientists together from 40 different countries.

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Lithium-ion batteries, used widely in smartphones, medical devices, electric vehicles or even satellites, are known to fail. Donal Finegan, 29, dedicates his research to understanding the degradation mechanisms of Li-ion batteries at different length scales. This information can help guide measures to improve the performance and safety of Li-ion batteries.

“At the moment my job is split between studying the safety aspect of batteries, which I do by using beamline ID19, and the performance limitations of the batteries, which I do on ID15A”, explains Finegan, currently a scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (US). He’s been a user of the ESRF since the start of his PhD, which was supervised by Prof. Paul Shearing, from University College London (UCL), who nominated him for the YSA. “The ESRF has had such a critical role in my research over the past 7 years. The YSA represents a tremendous honor for me and is also testament to the outstanding beamline scientists with whom I’ve work and who facilitated the cutting-edge techniques for my experiments”, he adds.

Finegan and his colleagues have come to the ESRF many times in the last years to perform complex experiments, which involved ‘accelerated stress tests’ on batteries to track how failure starts and can spread from one battery to another. Finegan’s research has also focused on designing new safety tests for battery qualification. Developed by NREL and NASA, they have explored a new ‘internal short circuiting’ device which, combined with the high speed X-ray imaging at ESRF, has lead to new insights into nucleation of battery failure, and is providing a new gold-standard for battery safety testing.

Last week, he published a new publication in Nature Communications that highlights the application of X-ray diffraction computed tomography (XRDCT) to quantify chemical defects in battery electrodes that affect their performance: “We imaged a Li-ion electrode in-situ on ID15A, and were able to identify crystallographic heterogeneities within and between individual electrode particles. This opens new opportunities to understand the cause of battery degradation since many degradation mechanisms are related to sub-particle crystallographic phenomena”, he adds.

Led by Prof. Shearing at UCL, Finegan is also involved in the supervision of a PhD student in the framework of the new INNOVAXN, a doctoral training programme that has just started and that brings together the expertise of large-scale research infrastructures with the R&D needs of industry. The PhD student will focus his work on applying advanced diffraction methods for probing the degradation and performance limitation of Li-ion battery materials.

“I’m very excited about the ESRF EBS upgrade” says Finegan, “because the ESRF will be the leading facility world-wide for fast and high resolution imaging”, says Finegan.


D.P. Finegan et al., Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 631 (2020) .

Text and photo by Montserrat Capellas Espuny


Top image: Donal Finegan on the experimental hutch of ID15A.