It took Maria Forsyth a while to settle on her real research interests. Beginning with a broad foundation of study in materials engineering and chemistry, she sailed through her doctorate at Monash University. With a questing mind, she worked on materials for new optic fibres and chemistries for improved in-vitro fertilisation methods, before her focus moved to polymer electrolytes in safer solid-state capacitors for implantable defibrillators, and finally to her long-term field of expertise, energy storage and corrosion.
Forsyth is now an acclaimed expert in her specialised field. Deakin University built her a lab in Melbourne according to her specifications. She leads collaborative global research into novel types of batteries and corrosion inhibitors, and she is working with industry to bring environmentally sound and ethical battery manufacturing to Australia.
With her research teams around the world, she is calibrating, testing and refining prototype batteries, looking for ideal combination of strengths.
“The holy grail for batteries is a high energy density battery, which means it has a lot of juice in it, you can drive a car a long way, the battery will last for a week or more between charges,” she says. “And you want a battery that will run for thousands of cycles before you have to throw it out.”
Such a battery would not only be a boon for renewable energy storage and the electric machines of the future, but also for remote and impoverished communities in the developing world, where charging a smartphone to stay abreast of market prices and find buyers can make all the difference to people’s lives.
Forsyth’s fascination with the field matured during her Fulbright scholarship post-doc research at Northwestern University in the US. She was interested in new energy technologies, and whether electrolyte materials could be used in devices.
“Back then, you didn’t have to make a device,” she remembers. “You just had to make a material, measure its properties and say, this could be useful for a device.”
In the years since her early research, Forsyth and her collaborators have found a novel salt-based electrolyte increases the efficiency of lithium-ion batteries and prevents them burning or exploding. They are now working on new sodium-ion batteries and new battery electrode materials using nickel and manganese, as well as biomass carbon from organic waste, while trying to steer away from cobalt, mostly mined in Africa, often in a particularly unethical way.
Growing up in a traditional Greek family wasn’t an easy ride for a gifted daughter. Neither of Forsyth’s parents had much education and Forsyth was expected to get married and perhaps find a secretarial job. She did get married and she did have two children, but she insisted on following an academic path.
“I was a geek,” she remembers. “I always wanted to know how things work. How the electricity gets to the pole.”
Her field continues to expand in new and unexpected ways. A year ago the federal government funded the Future Batteries Industries Cooperative Research Centre, led from Western Australia, and industries are collaborating with Forsyth and her colleagues to develop future electrolyte systems for next generation batteries.
“The idea is to establish an ecosystem of industries here in Australia, to not just dig resources up and sell them, but actually add value to the product and add value to the resource,” Forsyth says. “And to actually make batteries here.”