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Charging ahead

Illinois is the launch pad for the nation’s ‘battery moonshot.’

by Brian Mackey

Venkat Srinivasan has a relatively short list of requirements when shopping for a car. With a young baby at home, safety is important. “My wife is very clear,” he says. “We want to have a car where I can put my baby in the center seat in the back.” He also needs a fair amount of trunk space for all the baby gear. But what Srinivasan really wants is an environmentally friendly, plug-in hybrid. And that has been a problem.

“The Chevy Volt has a battery running in the middle of the back, in the center aisle, so there is no center seat in the back,” he says. “The Ford car has no trunk space to speak of. The plug-in Prius is no bigger than the [regular] Prius, and it doesn’t have a spare wheel.” Srinivasan has not found a single plug-in hybrid car that satisfies his relatively simple needs. This would be a problem for anyone, but for Srinivasan, it’s a personal challenge.

“It sort of told me why I need to be developing a better battery,” he says.

Srinivasan is part of a new federal research center near Chicago that’s trying to revolutionize transportation.

The Battery and Energy Storage Hub — known formally as the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR, pronounced “Jay Caesar”) — is based at Argonne National Laboratory, in Chicago’s western suburbs. It’s the fourth national hub meant to speed green energy innovation, joining existing hubs on nuclear reactors, solar power and energy efficient buildings. It’ll get up to $120 million from the federal government, plus $5 million for construction from the state of Illinois, though Gov. Pat Quinn has pledged to try to get $30 million more from the General Assembly.

When U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the hub in Chicago late last year, he said it was inspired by the wartime innovation of the Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of the world’s first atom bomb during World War II. Chu said that earlier in his career, he got to know some of the people who worked on Manhattan: “What I got from these veterans was that, when you had to deliver the goods very, very quickly, you needed to put the best scientists next to the best engineers, across disciplines, to get very focused on coming and solving a problem.”

Participants will come from all over the country: Srinivasan is based at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and there are several other national labs, universities and private companies involved. The idea is to get physicists and chemists and materials scientists and engineers working side by side to achieve an ambitious “five-five-five” goal. Eric Isaacs, the director of Argonne National Lab, laid down the marker at a news conference on the hub: “We’re going to develop batteries that are five times more powerful, five times cheaper, within five years.”

Srinivasan acknowledges it’s a steep challenge. “If you don’t have a grand challenge, then your ideas will not be grand,” he says. Like others involved in the hub, he describes it in historic terms, even comparing it to another ambitious federal science project spurred by President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s.

“This is like the moonshot for batteries,” Srinivasan says. The goal is intentionally difficult, but why not reach for that ultimate battery? “If you can get halfway there, a quarter of the way there, we’re doing much better than anybody’s done in the past,” he says. “But let us shoot for the moon and see what happens.”

There’s reason to believe humans have been at least vaguely aware of batteries for more than 2,000 years. Archeological discoveries near Baghdad suggest a crude form of battery dating to roughly 200 B.C. Created millennia before light bulbs and electric motors, there’s no definitive explanation of what its purpose might have been, though hypotheses include medicine and electroplating.

Over the ages, the basic chemical requirements of batteries are unchanged: two dissimilar metals are kept apart by a separator, which lets ions flow back and forth as the metal dissolves, releasing electricity. Some of the earliest batteries were alternating piles of copper and zinc, each layer separated by pieces of felt. More than a century ago, the lead-acid battery was invented; it’s been with us ever since.

Srinivasan says lead-acid batteries were particularly well-suited for starting cars — you need a battery that’s reliable, that’ll last for several years, and that’s not too expensive. Because lead-acid worked so well, no one was really looking that hard to improve upon it. But we’re in a new era, and cell phones, electric cars, and wind and solar power generation all require a new set of batteries.

Paul Braun, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, is one of the people working to make better batteries. He focuses part of his research on making batteries charge faster — imagine a phone that charges in seconds, or a car that charges in minutes.

Improving the batteries in cars is one of the main problems the hub is meant to solve. There are several problems with electric car batteries; foremost among them are scale and price.

“You can make a car that goes 100 miles,” Braun says. “By the time you try to make a car that goes 400 to 500 miles, the battery starts becoming bigger than the car.”

Double the size of the battery, and the car has to become bigger and more robust to accommodate it, which requires a bigger battery, which requires a bigger car, and so on. This is why most of today’s electric vehicles are small sedans, not large SUVs.

“You reach a point where, beyond a certain range, the battery weighs more than the car. So now no matter how much bigger you make the battery, you have to make the car ever bigger, and you don’t go any farther.”

Another big issue is cost. Braun says batteries can be at least 10 percent of the cost of an electric vehicle. That needs to decrease significantly to be competitive with internal combustion vehicles.

Most electric vehicles advertise a relatively short range: 11 miles for the plug-in Toyota Prius and 38 for the Chevy Volt (though both also have gasoline engines), and 73 miles for the Nissan Leaf (which is all-electric). But if you’re willing to pay for it, there is one option for going hundreds of miles on a single charge.

“Tesla Motors, in California, sells you a car that will cost you not quite $100,000 — a little bit less than that — but it’ll get you 250 miles, 300 miles,” Srinivasan says. “That battery may not last very long; you may have to go back every once in a while and get a new battery — for a pretty expensive sum.”

Teslas are tailor-made for the customer who wants to project a Prius sensibility with Lamborghini looks. If you have to ask how much a replacement Tesla battery costs, you probably can’t afford one. That’s a problem because electric car will only become viable when it’s accessible to a much larger portion of the commuting public.

“How do you get the guy who is driving a Toyota Corolla to drive an electric car?” Srinivasan asks. “More importantly — I’m from India — how do you get a guy who’s sitting in India, whose affordability is very, very low, to drive an electric car? These are open questions that I think we need to be thinking about. It is a worldwide problem.”

When the world’s largest oil corporation surveyed potential threats to its profits, it was not frightened by the prospect of government regulation to stem global warming, or political calls for energy independence. In his 2012 book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, Steve Coll writes that the corporation came to believe only a revolution in transportation could seriously threaten ExxonMobil. After a review of hydrogen fuel cells, biofuels and batteries, executives concluded that although a massive breakthrough was at least two decades away, batteries were the most likely “game changers.”

Braun says that’s because today’s batteries are nowhere near their “fundamental limit.” That is, the laws of physics do not stand in the way of a battery that’s 10 times better than we have today. Rather, our lack of know-how is what’s holding us back. Braun says batteries have the potential to be as good as the internal combustion engine, in terms of both range and cost. What remains to be seen is whether we can crack the code.

Braun says the improvements in any one type of battery come at a gradual pace — single-digit percentages every year. The big leaps have been in moving from older chemistries to newer ones. Braun says every step — from lead acid to nickel cadmium, NiCd to nickel-metal hydride, NiMh to lithium ion — has been an improvement of 200 or 300 percent in some aspect of the battery.

More recently, the pace of development has been accelerating. Lithium-ion batteries have proven to be useful in many different applications, from smart phones to laptops to cars to airplanes. Without the significant leaps of the past two decades, Srinivasan says innovations such as the iPhone would not have been possible. “It’s just not going to exist, because the size of that iPhone would be something that you would be carrying in both hands,” he says.

Lithium is a light element, sitting just under hydrogen on the periodic table. Braun says that’s what makes it so useful: It can store a lot of energy per unit weight precisely because it doesn’t weigh very much. He suggests thinking of the lithium in batteries as rooms in a house. Using today’s chemistry, the house is huge, but the rooms are relatively tiny, because the walls are massively thick. If we can figure out how to make the walls thinner, and thus the rooms bigger, we’d dramatically increase the amount of energy batteries can store.

For those reasons, Braun says it’s likely we’ll still use lithium as one of the main components of batteries in the future, though Srinivasan hopes scientists at the hub can go beyond it.

“Lithium has a charge of plus one — what if you can go to a charge of plus two or plus three?” Srinivasan says. “That’ll double or triple the amount of charge you can hold for any weight or volume you can have in the battery, which is kind of wonderful and fantastic.”

Lithium-ion batteries also pose unique safety challenges — “we’ve seen this now with the Boeing Dreamliner,” Braun says. The entire fleet of Dreamliner 787s has been grounded so the Federal Aviation Administration can assess risks posed by its lithium-ion batteries, including the possibility of fire.

Srinivasan says lithium has been a great platform for scientists. “What we want to do in the hub is come up with more of those platforms, so that the whole research community all over the world can have a wonderful time trying to find new things,” he says. “And when you have the power of the whole world looking for things, God knows what you’ll find. You may find something amazing.”

The JCESR hub is still in an early stage. But Chu, the energy secretary, says American business is counting on the researchers to meet the five-five-five target.

“If they achieve those goals, they get to those price points, then ka-boom. All new industries,” Chu says. “And that’s why this is so exciting, because it touches everything.”

Addressing the recent failures of several other government-backed green-energy initiatives, Chu says America cannot cede ground to foreign competition.

“You have to be in this game,” he says. “If you say, ‘No, there’s a chance I’m going to fail, therefore we’ll let Japan — Korea, Germany, China, you name it — own this space,’ then we will have failed.”

Five-five-five. The clock is running.

Brian Mackey covers state government and politics for public radio stations across Illinois.

Illinois Issues, March 2013


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Photograph by Roy Kaltschmidt, courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National LaboratoryVenkat SrinivasanVenkat Srinivasan is a researcher for the U.S. Battery and Energy Storage Hub based at Argonne National Lab.