Professor Alejandro A. Franco, Université de Picardie Jules Verne, Amiens, France, has developed 3D virtual reality video games for battery education and research. Here he talks to ChemistryViews about where he sees the future of battery research, why he believes virtual reality games are an important part of science communication, and about his experiences getting students and the general public interested in battery research.
You recently published an article about innovative computer games for battery education and research. Can you tell us more about these games? 
These games use virtual reality (VR) technology to provide the users with an immersive interaction with battery materials, components, and cells. The players learn by interacting in an intuitive way with battery concepts, electrodes, models, and research results.
We have developed different games, including:
♦ “The Great Escapade VR”: Here the player chooses a battery type to drive an electric car. The player has to collect three gifts randomly placed in a virtual city or the countryside within a limited time and by escaping from black trucks. The battery is represented as a positive electrode floating in the virtual sky. Discharge of the battery is simulated by using a mathematical model and the changes are shown to the player.
♦ “Tortuosity VR”: Here the player flies like Superman inside the electrode 3D morphologies. By doing so, he calculates the tortuosity of the battery along the three Cartesian directions. The tortuosity is calculated from the ratio between the flight distance and the electrode thickness. The calculated tortuosity is compared to the theoretical one pre-calculated by using a diffusion model. The game gives a score depending on the difference between these values.
♦ “Nanoviewer VR”: Here the player visualizes electrode mesostructures in an immersive way and interacts with calculated electrode mesostructures, discovers how active material and carbon-binder domains are organized in three dimensions within the electrodes, and searches for hidden objects (“Easter eggs”) in a limited time.
♦ “Crystal VR”: The player visualizes and interacts with materials and builds crystals including LIB (Li-ion battery) active materials by intuitively using mathematical symmetry operations.
♦ “Smart Grid MR”: This is a collaborative game in mixed reality (MR). One player drives an electric car in the VR environment while other players generate “virtual” electricity by interacting with real 3D-printed devices. The generated electricity is stored in a virtual redox flow battery that powers recharge stations that the VR player can use to recharge his/her car.
When a player drives an electric car or flies as Superman through a battery, the player learns how the battery is working and about its components?
Yes, exactly. Some of the game’s purpose is to explain exactly which materials batteries are made of. In the games the players interact with these materials. So in one of the games, the one you were mentioning about Superman, the player flies inside an electron in a battery.
In the game with the electric car, we teach the operation principles of an electric car. How a battery will behave in an electric car, how different types of batteries made from different materials affect the autonomy of the battery. People learn by doing this. They can change the type of battery and then see what happens with the materials they choose and learn why.
What was your idea behind developing these games?
We wanted to make it easier for the general public to understand battery materials, their components, and their working principles. We wanted to increase the motivation and engagement of students learning complex concepts, which usually involve three-dimensional representations and complex behavior.
Batteries are complex devices encompassing multiple materials and mechanisms at multiple scales during their operation. Materials and electrodes are three-dimensional objects with anisotropic properties (e.g., tortuosity) that affect the overall performance. The two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional objects often results in difficulties in the abstraction and conceptualization of battery materials and components in three dimensions, such as the spatial localization of materials within an electrode and their operation principles.
Moreover, VR technology provides an immersive and interactive experience by putting the person in situations that are impossible in reality. This can include manipulating and navigating inside a material of a few micrometers in size and performing simulations in an intuitive way without knowledge in programming.
So you use these games in classes with your students?
Yes. With undergraduate and master’s students, and also with the larger public mainly at science festivals. We see at the festivals that young people are crazy about these games. There we realized that even children, maybe ten years old, have fun using the tool. Although, they will not understand everything.
How did you know how to attract students?
I am the Principal Investigator (PI) of the project, but it is a nice collaborative team. The team includes a psychologist who helped me understand how these tools impact the learning process of the students, their engagement and motivation, and how user-friendliness is improved, for example. From this, I learned a lot about cognitive psychology.
I also learn a lot from my students; they provide a lot of feedback.
Where can these games be found? Can only your students or participants at special festivals play them?
Yes. And this is why I am very keen to participate in science festivals because I want to give access to the games to the wider public.
What we plan to do is to open a webpage where people will be able to load the games and, if they have the HTC headset, they will be able to use them for free. Others can use the games at universities.
We also plan to develop simplified web shots of the games that can be played online. However, there you will not have the interaction in 3D.
What got you interested in teaching concepts?
Overall, I started to love explaining science when I was a child. I was amazed by the TV series “Cosmos” and its great presenter, the astronomer Carl Sagan. Since then, I have always been interested in communicating science to the larger public, with regular participations in science festivals all throughout my high-school studies.
I think it is very important to communicate about the research we do to the general public. Scientists do research for society, and society needs to know about what scientists do.
What do you enjoy most about this?
The thing I enjoy the most at the University level, is seeing in the eyes of the students when their passion awakes when they hear about a new discovery or when I say that we are going to practice with the VR serious games. Students’ enthusiasm is crucial to engage them in scientific research.
I wanted to become a professor to be closer to the students, to give lectures, to fulfill my dream of explaining science to students.
How do you think we can improve science education and increase the motivation of students?
I think that we need to foster pedagogy innovation in chemical education. We need to enable students to feel as though they are the main actors of scientific research. We all know that they are very important for the future of our societies, but we really need them to feel so. For that purpose, we need to engage them, motivate them, stimulate their creativity by exposing them to open scientific questions and to other scientific mysteries still waiting for discoveries. Chemical education needs to make them feel that they are contributing to the science of today and tomorrow.
Serious games can be a way to motivate and engage students more efficiently. They learn by doing. These games should be attractive enough to catch the interest of kids and young people.
And we need strong international cooperation. Through international collaborative platforms we can share, for example, these serious games and ease the exchange among educators. We should provide free online courses where people from all around the world can connect.
From your experience, what are the biggest challenges?
One of the biggest challenges is attracting pupils to science from a very young age, to make them understand that science is fun. A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein is that “Play is the highest form of research”.
So we need to start with attracting the wider public. How can we best educate society about the role of chemistry in today’s world?
We need to make society understand the practical implications of chemistry in everyday life. Chemistry is everywhere. Scientific research in chemistry allows the shaping of materials present in the devices that surround us.
I really believe that tools such as our VR games will attract the wider public to science. They are breaking the barriers between science and the wider public and their knowledge. It is a way of communicating what we are doing. An attractive game allows them to naturally enter into the science world and they will be attracted to experiments and scientific thinking concepts. And they will learn by doing.
I think the games give people the possibility to be active in research. They are doing research even if they don’t know that they are doing research. The games create a positive combination between education and research.
In your opinion, how important is social media for researchers?
Social media allows researchers to connect from all over the world, to share the latest news and webinar information, and share updates about the latest research and publications. It also allows access to the wider public if we know how to communicate about our research in simple terms. If we do so, social media can be a fantastic forum for the direct exchange between scientists and the general public, to explain a recent discovery or to refute fake science news circulating on the Internet.
How would you describe yourself?
I am a transdisciplinary person. I am a physicist who wanted to become an astrophysicist and who is now working on electrochemistry. I have a strong background in multiscale modeling (multiple computational techniques and techniques to combine them), I am very interested in what artificial intelligence algorithms can provide in research, I work hard to establish links with experimental characterizations, and I am very much concerned by education. I am also fascinated by what high-tech communication technologies such as VR and augmented reality can provide to ease research and to foster education.
Where do you get the inspiration for your research?
My ideas can emerge at any time, in my office, during a meal with friends, or by having dreams when I sleep. I love reading, in particular textbooks from other fields such as astrophysics. But definitively, my energy source is my fantastic wife and the walks in nature, particularly walking on the beach near where I live.
What role will artificial intelligence or advanced algorithms play in the field of electrochemical energy storage?
On Web of Science there are more than 75,000 publications dealing with batteries. For Li-ion batteries in particular there are more than 20,000. If you read 200 papers a year, you will need more than 100 years to read all of the literature related to batteries. That’s a lot of time.
Artificial intelligence (AI) starts to revolutionize the way we carry out research in the battery field: it allows an acceleration of the discovery of materials, the ability to predict correlations between parameters, the optimization of manufacturing processes, the prediction of cell lifetimes, and the optimization of the ways we carry out battery recycling. It can even help at extracting automatically useful information from the huge amount of papers manetioned above.
In my opinion, AI has tremendous potential to speed up research in the battery field. But it needs to be fed with well-organized data. We need to introduce a standard and a minimum requirement for the way that we report data in battery publications to make them useful for AI. AI prediction capabilities strongly rely on the amount and quality of the data used.
I am involved in a project coordinated by the Technical University of Denmark where we, among other topics, intend to propose something to the battery community to report data in a cleaner way to ease the analysis of the data by AI.
What motivates you?
Several things motivate me, from very fundamental ones, such as the mystery of the universe we live in (why it exists?), to more practical ones, such as finding ways to ease the life of our societies through sustainable energy conversion and storage devices and making it accessible to everyone.
Another thing that motivates me is the need to ensure the right preparation and education of future generations to confront the climate and energy challenges they are going to face and to ensure the sustainability of humanity.
If you could be granted one single thing to support your research, what would it be?
I would love to be granted the ability to create an institute to foster the development of energy storage and conversion sciences (not only batteries) and in particular to support excellence in developing countries. Such an institute should foster scientific programs by taking into account the needs of developing countries, and provide an international forum through which energy researchers from all over the world can meet.
Basically, I dream of creating an energy institute with a similar spirit to that of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) created by Professor Abdus Salam in Trieste, Italy, and supported by UNESCO.
What do you do in your spare time?
I do multiple things, such as walking on the beach, some sport (trekking, running, swimming), playing chess, and (when I am inspired) writing ideas on pieces of paper.
Anything you would like to add?
Science can be a fantastic catalyst of friendship and integration. At the beginning of July, I organized a Webinar Series about battery manufacturing (free of charge). I was amazed by the amount of people who connected (600+) and their diversity – six out of seven continents were represented. We need to promote the emergence of scientific events like this more often, to connect people, both men and women, from all over the world.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Alejandro A. Franco, born 1977, studied physics at the Universidad Nacional del Sur, Bahía Blanca, Argentina, and gained his Ph.D. on multiscale modeling of polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells from the Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1, Grenoble, France, in 2005. After obtaining his habilitation to direct research at the Université Claude Bernard Lyon, France, in 2010, and qualification to become a university professor in 2011, he was a Research Scientist at the Réseau sur le Stockage Electrochimique de l’Energie (FR CNRS 3459) and at the ALISTORE European Research Institute (FR CNRS 3104), and has been a full professor at the Université de Picardie Jules Verne, Amiens, France, since 2013.
Alejandro Franco is an Editorial Board member of Batteries & Supercaps and is currently guest editing a special collection for the journal on artificial intelligence in electrochemical energy storage. Since 2015, he has been a leader of the Theory Open Platform of the ALISTORE European Research Institute, a European network working in the field of batteries. In October, he will chair the 1st Batteries & Supercaps Virtual Symposium on “Machine Learning Applied to Batteries”.
His research focuses on developing multiscale models for the numerical simulation of electrochemical devices for energy storage and conversion, such as lithium–air and lithium–sulfur batteries, redox flow and lithium-ion batteries, polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells, and electrolyzers. These models, based on theoretical approaches pioneered by himself, allow the execution of in silico studies of the physicochemical mechanisms taking place at multiple spatiotemporal scales in these devices during their operation. In addition, they allow links between chemical and microstructural properties of the materials, and their performance and durability to be established. With the help of these models, he intends to optimize the design of the next generation of batteries and fuel cells.
His twitter account:
His project twitter account:
- National Prize for Pedagogy Innovation PEPS 2019: 2019.
- ERC Consolidator Grant (project ARTISTIC): 2017.
- Junior member of the Institut Universitaire de France (IUF): 2016.
-  A. A. Franco, J. N. Chotard, E. Loup-Escande, Y. Yin, R. Zhao, A. Rucci, A. Ndganjong, B. Beye, S. Herbulot, R. Lelong, Entering the Augmented Era: Immersive and Interactive Virtual Reality for Battery Education and Research, Batteries & Supercaps 2020. https://doi.org/10.1002/batt.202000120
- R. P. Cunha, T. Lombardo, E. N. Primo, A. A. Franco, Artificial Intelligence Investigation of NMC Cathode Manufacturing Parameters Interdependencies, Batteries & Supercaps 2020, 3, 60 – 67. https://doi.org/10.1002/batt.201900135
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- A. Shodiev, E. N. Primo, M. Chouchane, T. Lombardo, A. C. Ngandjong, A. Rucci, A. A. Franco, 4D-resolved physical model for electrochemical impedance spectroscopy of Li (Ni1-x-yMnxCoy) O2-based cathodes in symmetric cells: consequences in tortuosity calculations, Journal of Power Sources 2020, 227871. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpowsour.2020.227871
- T. Lombardo, J. B. Hoock, E. N. Primo, A. C. Ngandjong, M. Duquesnoy, A. A. Franco, Accelerated Optimization Methods for Force‐Field Parametrization in Battery Electrode Manufacturing Modeling, Batteries & Supercaps 2020, 3, 1 – 11. https://doi.org/10.1002/batt.202000049
- M. Chouchane, A. Rucci, T. Lombardo, A. C. Ngandjong, A. A. Franco, Lithium ion battery electrodes predicted from manufacturing simulations: Assessing the impact of the carbon-binder spatial location on the electrochemical performance, Journal of Power Sources 2019, 444, 227285. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpowsour.2019.227285
- A. A. Franco, A. Rucci, D. Brandell, C. Frayret, M. Gaberscek, P. Jankowski, P. Johansson, Boosting rechargeable batteries R&D by multiscale modeling: myth or reality?, Chemical Reviews 2019, 119(7), 4569–4627. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.chemrev.8b00239
- A. C. Ngandjong, A. Rucci, M. Maiza, G. Shukla, J. Vazquez-Arenas, A. A. Franco, Multiscale simulation platform linking lithium ion battery electrode fabrication process with performance at the cell level, The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters 2017, 8(23), 5966–5972. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jpclett.7b02647
- Y. Yin, A. Torayev, C. Gaya, Y. Mammeri, A. A. Franco, Linking the Performances of Li–O2 Batteries to Discharge Rate and Electrode and Electrolyte Properties through the Nucleation Mechanism of Li2O2, The Journal of Physical Chemistry C 2017, 121(36), 19577–19585. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jpcc.7b05224
- V. Thangavel, K. H. Xue, Y. Mammeri, M. Quiroga, A. Mastouri, C. Guéry, P. Johansson, M. Morcrette, A. A. Franco, A microstructurally resolved model for Li-S batteries assessing the impact of the cathode design on the discharge performance, Journal of The Electrochemical Society 2016, 163(13), A2817. https://doi.org/10.1149/MA2018-02/8/523
- M. A. Quiroga, K. Malek, A. A. Franco, A multiparadigm modeling investigation of membrane chemical degradation in PEM fuel cells, Journal of The Electrochemical Society 2015, 163(2), F59. https://doi.org/10.1149/2.0931514jes