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Battery doctors

Prof David Howey and his group (Department of Engineering Science) had their first taste of public engagement at the Curiosity Carnival (Sept 2017). Here he shares why they got involved and how things went.

What is your research area?

David Howey profile imageI run a battery management lab where we build battery systems and then figure out how to control them correctly so that they last as long as possible. Our main applications are electric transport and energy storage for the power grid. Our work involves running lots of tests on different cells and looking at how they behave in the real world, building models of their performance, and joining the dots from the technical constraints to the economic factors. We have developed a system which stops a battery pack from being limited by the worst-performing cell in the pack. This allows you to have a pack that lasts for a longer time, or is cheaper, or smaller. We have a spin-out company, Brill Power, which is working to commercialise some of this technology.

Why did you decide to take part in Curiosity Carnival?


The benefits of that are huge, not just for ‘the general public’ but for us as well.
- Prof David Howey

I think it’s good for us to communicate what we do as clearly and simply as possible.The benefits of that are huge, not just for ‘the general public’ (if I can caricature them like that) but for us as well. For the last five years I’ve been effectively been locked in a silo, building a research group from scratch, and I felt it was time to start thinking much more broadly about what we have done and what we want to do. Part of that is about bouncing the research off diverse other people and being able to describe the benefits very clearly.

It was very helpful to think of some simple demos to show that batteries are a bit like people – you need to treat them kindly, they need to be in a narrow temperature window, you can’t hit them or drop them – and then show how that becomes a motivation for our work. It’s like that first slide in your academic conference presentation where you explain why you’re doing this. Public engagement like Curiosity Carnival helps to articulate that.

What was the activity that you organised?

Battery packBatteries are kind of uninteresting from the outside – they don’t move around a lot, and in an ideal world you don’t want them to do anything exciting like explode. But we’ve built a battery pack that demonstrates the control technology we’re developing; it has 24 modules with arrays of LEDs, and 3D-printed parts that are quite colourful, so it looks fun. You can pull modules in and out and the system will continue to operate, so we can physically do something to show people it’s robust and resilient, and that there is individual control of the cells. We can run things off it, so we used it to power most of the other equipment on the stand.

We also had an infrared camera from our lab and used it to make the point that batteries need to be temperature controlled for performance and lifetime. So if you go to the Antarctic you’ll suddenly not have the capacity to run any equipment because it’s so cold that batteries just don’t work. People could point the camera at the equipment we had on the stand and visualise its temperature; we had a projector so we could show the images on a screen, and the camera was also fun to point at people.

Finally we had some diagnostic equipment from our lab which we use to look inside a battery to find out more about its performance. The technique that we use is analogous to tapping the wall when you’re going to put a shelf up. Electrically speaking, you can ‘hear’ the frequency response of the battery, and that tells you something about what’s inside. Interpreting that is difficult, but we were able to run tests on different batteries and show people the results on the screen and discuss them.

What did you learn from the experience? Were there any challenges, and would you change anything next time?

Coming up with the ideas for the demos was quite hard. There are some groups where the research is very visual and you can immediately appreciate what the point of it is. It took a bit of lateral thinking to work out what we were going to tell people and not have it come across so complicated that it becomes inaccessible. The thinking and planning was a team effort, and then I delegated tasks to people to check that everything was going to work. Fortunately my team was really helpful, but overall it probably did take a few days’ work for a few people. Now we’ve done it once, it would be easier to do a second time.

Battery stallThe evening itself went really well and we had lots of engaging conversations. It also brought our team together in a fun way. I was surprised by the number of kids who were there although it was an evening event, and it was perhaps more difficult to engage with the younger ones. Whether they learnt anything about batteries I don’t know, but maybe that’s not the point – hopefully they caught some of our enthusiasm. Everyone from 16 up to 80 was engaged and very willing to chat, which was great.

I think if we hadn’t had lots of bits of kit we would have struggled. Logistically, getting our equipment to the Museum of Natural History was fine because it was near our department – but it could have been a hassle.

Are there any practical tips or suggestions you would give to researchers who are new to public engagement?

As this was more or less my first time I don’t feel particularly qualified to say, but thinking about the very simple high-level issue of ‘why should anyone care’ is probably the starting point. I think it’s worthwhile to consider the narrative and the questions you might get asked by the people who come to you. Michaela has some good tips on this.  And then having stuff with flashing lights and different colours always helps.

Do you have plans for any future public engagement activities?

In the near term, no. However I’m about to do a talk in London for non-specialists, so that’s another opportunity to recast what we do in understandable terms. I think it is always really important to do that.


This case study was written by Sarah Loving.