Inside The Race To Build A Battery That Can Power The 21st Century
The garage startup has become as much of an American icon in the twenty first century as the automobile and the drive-in were to earlier generations. The idea that anyone with an idea can change the world is as romantic as democracy itself, but it’s not altogether true. A garage startup only works if there is existing technology to build on top of.
The problem is that every technology eventually runs out of steam. When that happens, progress will grind to a halt without a significant breakthrough. As technology becomes more complex, that type of advancement becomes so hard to achieve that it becomes out of reach for any single organization, much less a few guys in a garage.
That is essentially where we are with energy storage. Lithium-ion, the 40 year-old technology that powers everything from smartphones to electric cars is nearing its theoretical limits just as the renewable energy revolution is demanding cheaper batteries that can store more energy at lower cost. Solving problems like these requires a massively collaborative approach.
A Brief History Of Energy Storage
The lithium-ion battery was originally discovered by the American scientist John Goodenough, in 1979, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Over the next decade, the technology steadily improved and by the early 1990s, it became commercially available in Sony Camcorders.
Since then, lithium-ion batteries have increased in energy density by a factor of six, while costs have dropped by a factor of 10. That’s made them good enough to power our phones and laptops, but they’re still not powerful enough — or cheap enough — to power electric cars or the electric grid.
Experts believe that to create a true transformation, battery costs need be below $100/ Kw/hour and the current technology is unlikely to get us there. So getting where we need to be is not a matter of simply improving efficiency, we have to come up with completely new materials with greater energy density and lower cost.
When the Department of Energy began thinking about how to solve such an enormous and seemingly intractable problem, it realized that it needed to take a very different approach. The result is the Joint Center For Energy Storage Research (JCESR), which is currently in the fourth year of its five year mandate to develop next generation batteries.
Pooling Scientific Knowledge
The basic idea behind JCESR is that the knowledge required to create a breakthrough solution is spread out among a diverse number of scientists working at a wide variety of institutions, such as the national labs and academic institutions. So the first step was to combine their talents and coordinate research through a single hub focused on the energy storage problem.
Venkat Srinivasan, Deputy Director, Research and Development at JCESR explains, “National labs tend to have bigger teams of people working on bigger problems, while academic researchers are more specialized in their expertise. Our structure allows us to access stars in the academic world and apply their specific expertise to the problem of next generation storage.”
“For example,” he continues, “Matthew Sigman and Shelley Minteer at the University of Utah have done pathbreaking work in chemical stability in the pharmaceutical field, but we recognized that the same technology can help us make better batteries. Their work has really propelled our mission forward, while working on batteries has taken their research into new areas.”
So combining the expertise of five national labs along with a number of the country’s top universities gives JCESR an incredible amount of scientific talent. Yet the battery problem is about more than science. The aim is to come up with a solution that not only works, but can win in the marketplace, which is why getting input from private companies is crucial.
Bringing In Private Industry
Scientists are focused on discovering new phenomena, but have little insight into the practicalities of the marketplace. For example, a researcher that discovers a new material with vastly more energy density than current batteries will have no idea whether it is feasible to procure, manufacture and distribute.
That’s a big problem, because by the time a scientist verifies his results, prepares them for publication and goes through peer review, it can take years before he realizes that he wasted his time. So getting input from partners and affiliates in the private sector has been invaluable for focusing research at JCESR on the most promising paths to a better battery.
It has also greatly benefitted the companies that have participated. As Brian Cooke, a Group Vice President at Johnson Controls told me, “We saw our involvement as an opportunity to shape the future, so the science coming out of JCESR would have the greatest benefit for our customers, our company and our industry. It has also enabled us to interact with top notch researchers from some of the country’s best labs.”
Yet it isn’t just big companies that are benefitting. Through JCESR’s affiliate program even small companies can participate, which gives them a better idea of how to focus their efforts. That’s especially important for firms that can’t afford to go off in the wrong direction and waste limited resources.
Mike Wixom of Navitas, a four year old company that focuses on military and industrial applications, told me, “As a small company, we’re fighting for our survival on a daily basis. Becoming JCESR affiliate gives us an early peek at technology and you get to give feedback about what kinds manufacturing issues are likely to come up with any particular chemistry.”
Innovating The Discovery Process
Historically, the process of making a new battery has been mostly trial and error. Building a battery for use in a car has vastly different requirements than, say, for the grid or a power tool. So, for the most part, battery developers experimented with different combinations until they get the right specifications for the product they were trying to make.
One of the major achievements at JCESR has been to build tools to make this process more rational and efficient. The first is a computer model that analyzes the complex interplay between technical and economic factors that a battery will need to achieve. The second is materials and electrolytes “genomes” that known properties of the various possibilities.
“Moving to the materials genome is like moving from your local library to the Internet,” says Mike Andrew, a Director at Johnson Controls Power Solutions. “It lets our research benefit from the collective experience in the field, rather than just what we’ve tried ourselves. We’ve also found that discoveries of things that don’t work are as helpful as things that do.”
JCESR has used these tools to develop four promising prototypes — two that are focused on vehicles and two designed for the electrical grid — that have the potential to break through the $100/Kw hour barrier. It’ll be another year before we know whether any of these will be viable for the marketplace, but they are already creating excitement.
“We’re hoping that some of the prototypes that are being developed in the lab now will help guide our strategic development and give us a leg up on the future,” Wixom of Navitas told me. However, as thrilling as it is to be on the brink of a major breakthrough, there was a real feeling among the people I talked to that the development of tools for discovery are just as important.
Shifting From Disruptive Markets To Grand Challenges
Today, energy storage is just one of many challenges that we face as a society. Like lithium-ion batteries, computer chips are also approaching theoretical limits. Other technologies such as genomics, nanotechnology and robotics are just beginning to hit their stride.
In essence, we’re moving into uncharted territory. Over the past several decades, technology has progressed within well known paradigms. Better batteries made our devices smaller, faster chips made them more powerful and more sophisticated software allowed them to do more. These have made our lives better, our businesses more profitable and society better off.
Yet today, are moving into a new era of innovation where simply improving old technologies and identifying new applications for them will no longer suffice. We now need to shift our focus from disrupting markets to taking on grand challenges that are beyond the capabilities of a single organization or, in many cases, a single industry or field of study.
So in the future, we are going to need to build more platforms designed for mass collaboration like JCESR, where government, academia and industry can pool resources, define new approaches and break through technical barriers that were once considered to be beyond our reach.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com