News Article | September 16, 2016
« Ford embeds researchers in new U-M robotics lab to accelerate autonomous vehicle research | Main | KAUST team proposes pine-tree derived terpineol as octane booster for gasoline » As part of its new IONICS (Integration and Optimization of Novel Ion Conducting Solids) program awards (earlier post), the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) awarded $3.5 million in funding to a team that includes 24M, Sepion Technologies, Berkeley Lab, and Carnegie Mellon University. The funds will be used to develop novel membranes and lithium-metal anodes for the next generation of high-energy-density, low-cost batteries. 24M’s core technology is semi-solid lithium-ion, a new class of lithium-ion batteries that will be initially deployed in stationary storage. With this ARPA-E program, 24M and its partners will extend the capabilities of semi-solid electrodes to ultra-high-energy density cells that use lithium-metal anodes. The semi-solid thick electrode is a material science innovation originating in Dr. Yet-Ming Chiang’s lab at MIT. (Dr. Chiang, one of the founders of A123 Systems, is a co-founder and chief scientist for 24M.) Conventional lithium-ion battery cells have a large fraction of inactive, non-charge carrying materials—supporting metals and plastics—that are layered, one-on-top of the other, within a cell’s casing. Those inactive materials are expensive and wasteful. With the invention of the semisolid thick electrode, 24M eliminates more than 80% of these inactive materials and increases the active layer thickness over traditional lithium-ion by up to 5x. Using thick electrodes, the cell also stores more energy, bettering the performance of the battery as well as its cost. The materials design enables up to 5x the area capacity of standard Li-ion. Sepion Technologies’ vision is to develop ultra-light, high-power density Li-sulfur batteries for aviation. The company has developed a microporous polymer membrane to replace incumbent separator materials. In addition to providing high-flux and ion-selective transport, Sepion’s polymer membranes are processable in large area formats at a fraction of the cost of ceramics. Sepion Technologies’ core membrane technology was developed at Berkeley Lab by Peter Frischmann and his co-founder, Molecular Foundry Staff Scientist Brett Helms. Frischmann left his position at Berkeley Lab to found Sepion Technologies earlier this year. He and his team are users at the Molecular Foundry where they continue to develop their technology. Lithium metal is recognized as an enabler of high-energy density in rechargeable batteries, but has heretofore not been sufficiently stable for aggressive long-life applications. 24M and its partners have identified a new approach to stabilizing the lithium-metal anode, which, when combined with the inherent cost advantages of semi-solid lithium-ion technology, can realize the energy-density promise of lithium metal, safely and at low cost. 24M and team will use nano-composite organic-inorganic protective layers to enable reversible lithium metal electrodes and low-cost, high-energy batteries based on those electrodes. The team’s core innovation takes advantage of the interfaces between the polymer and inorganic components to provide the necessary dendrite-blocking ability of ceramic-based conductors while still being highly conductive and manufacturable using traditional roll-to-roll processes. The ARPA-E IONICS program seeks to advance storage technologies by focusing on the parts of the electrochemical cell that conduct ions and concentrates on solid materials because of the potential for greatly enhanced performance and stability.
News Article | February 15, 2017
ALAMO, Calif., Feb. 14, 2017 /PRNewswire/ -- GridBright, Inc. announced today that it is part of three of the thirteen projects selected for award negotiations by the DOE SunShot Initiative ENERGISE; a $30M program to support integration of solar energy into the nation's electric grid,...
Yee S.K.,University of California at Berkeley |
Malen J.A.,University of California at Berkeley |
Malen J.A.,Carnegie Mellon University |
Majumdar A.,Arpa E Inc. |
Segalman R.A.,University of California at Berkeley
Nano Letters | Year: 2011
Thermoelectricty in heterojunctions, where a single-molecule is trapped between metal electrodes, has been used to understand transport properties at organic-inorganic interfaces.(1)The transport in these systems is highly dependent on the energy level alignment between the molecular orbitals and the Fermi level (or work function) of the metal contacts. To date, the majority of single-molecule measurements have focused on simple small molecules where transport is dominated through the highest occupied molecular orbital.(2, 3)In these systems, energy level alignment is limited by the absence of electrode materials with low Fermi levels (i.e., large work functions). Alternatively, more controllable alignment between molecular orbitals and the Fermi level can be achieved with molecules whose transport is dominated by the lowest unoccupied molecular orbital (LUMO) because of readily available metals with lower work functions. Herein, we report molecular junction thermoelectric measurements of fullerene molecules (i.e., C 60, PCBM, and C 70) trapped between metallic electrodes (i.e., Pt, Au, Ag). Fullerene junctions demonstrate the first strongly n-type molecular thermopower corresponding to transport through the LUMO, and the highest measured magnitude of molecular thermopower to date. While the electronic conductance of fullerenes is highly variable, due to fullerene's variable bonding geometries with the electrodes, the thermopower shows predictable trends based on the alignment of the LUMO with the work function of the electrodes. Both the magnitude and trend of the thermopower suggest that heterostructuring organic and inorganic materials at the nanoscale can further enhance thermoelectric performance, therein providing a new pathway for designing thermoelectric materials. © 2011 American Chemical Society.
News Article | January 7, 2015
A program within the Department of Energy, called ARPA-E, has opened up $125 million to fund various technology and science projects that are “transformational” for energy, whether that’s for clean energy generation, lower emissions vehicles, or energy efficient tech for buildings. The ARPA-E program funds early-stage, high-risk, but high-impact, projects out of university labs, young startups and big companies alike, and this type of open funding announcement is meant to make sure they’re not excluding technologies outside of their already established funding verticals. Apply here by February 20.
News Article | January 14, 2013
Updated: Batteries are the quiet work horses of our gadgets, and our cell phones, and they’ll also one day remake our power grid and our vehicles. But battery innovation is difficult — it takes a long time to develop and commercialize new batteries, and it can also take a lot of money. That’s why we wanted to take the opportunity to highlight some of the rare next-generation battery startups out there that are using nanotechnology, new printing technologies, high-powered computing, and other innovations to produce the future’s batteries. With a little luck, strong leadership, and maybe some government support, these battery startups could change the way the world stores energy. Also make sure to check out an advanced battery report (subscription required) recently published by our research service GigaOM Pro. 1). Ambri: Ambri is one of the most well known battery startups out there. Formerly called Liquid Metal Battery, the company was founded by MIT Professor Don Sadoway, who is probably the only battery startup founder ever to score an interview on The Colbert Report. It’s also got investors Bill Gates, Vinod Khosla, and oil giant Total. Ambri is developing a battery for the power grid using molten salt sandwiched between two layers of liquid metal. The battery is still at least a year and a half from commercialization. 2). Imprint Energy: Using zinc, instead of lithium, and screen printing technology, Imprint Energy has developed a battery that is ultra-thin, energy-dense, flexible, and low cost. Because the battery can be made thin and pliable, the company hopes to target companies making wearables. Imprint Energy is already making small volumes of its batteries for pilot customers, and plans to ramp up to commercial scale manufacturing in a couple years. 3). Alveo Energy: Half-year-old startup Alveo Energy is looking to develop and commercialize a battery made out of water, Prussian blue dye — which is used to color things like blue jeans, crayons and paint — iron and copper. The battery is meant to be ultra low cost and long lasting, and if successful, could help deliver breakthrough energy storage technology for the power grid. The research behind the battery was done by Stanford PhD student turned entrepreneur Colin Wessells, and Stanford Professor Professor Robert Huggins, and the company managed to snag a $4 million grant from the Department of Energy’s high risk early stage program called ARPA-E. 4). Pellion: Pellion went about finding the perfect battery chemistry in a totally disruptive way: the researchers created advanced algorithms and computer models that enabled them to test out 10,000 potential cathode materials to fit with its magnesium anode for its battery. Pellion co-founder, MIT Professor Gerbrand Ceder, also helped develop The Materials Genome Project at MIT, which is a program based on using computer modelling and virtual simulations to deliver innovation in materials. Pellion says its magnesium batteries could have very high energy density — higher than current lithium ion batteries. The startup is backed by the ARPA-E program as well as Khosla Ventures. 5). QuantumScape: QuantumScape is an early stage stealth battery startup that is truly a product of Silicon Valley. The company is commercializing technology from Stanford University, it was founded by Infinera co-founder and CEO Jagdeep Singh, and it’s backed by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Khosla Ventures. The company is trying to create a battery — called the all-electron battery — that has the density of fossil fuels. The technology being used is a new method for stacking trace amounts of materials together. 6). Envia: A year ago battery startup Envia unveiled that its lithium ion battery technology could deliver an electric car with a 300-mile range for a cost of around $25,000 to $30,000. Founded in 2007, Envia developed a low-cost cathode and then paired that with a silicon carbon anode, and a high-voltage electroloyte. The company is backed by General Motors, Japanese giant Asahi Kasei, Pangaea Ventures, Redpoint Ventures and the DOE’s ARPA-E program. 7). GELI: Startup GELI isn’t making new types of batteries, but it’s developing an operating system and software for grid batteries. Companies, building owners and utilities can buy GELI-enabled batteries and use the batteries for services like providing energy storage for solar systems, or for storing and discharging energy when the demand for energy becomes out of balance with supply. 8). Sila Nanotechnologies: Sila Nanotechnologies was founded in 2011 by Valley entrepreneurs working with the Georgia Institute of Technology. The company is building a lighter lithium ion battery that has double the capacity of current lithium ion batteries. The company received a $1.73 million grant from the DOE. 9). Boulder Ionics: Boulder Ionics is working on breakthroughs for the electrolyte part of the battery, which is the guts of the battery, where the ions flow across between the anode and the cathode. The company is developing an electrolyte made of ionic liquids that can function at high temperatures and voltages and is lower cost to make than the more standard way to make ionic liquids. 10). Prieto Battery: The brainchild of Colorado State chemistry professor Amy Prieto, Prieto Battery is making a lithium ion battery that it says can charge in five minutes and last for five times longer than the standard lithium ion batteries. The company is leveraging nanotechnology to develop tiny copper nanowires that make up the anode of the battery, and the electrolyte is made of a solid polymer. 11). Sakti3: Sakti3 is a startup in Michigan that is building a lithium ion battery that is entirely solid state, and has a high energy density. Making it from solid polymers means it won’t have those flammable liquids and could be a lot safer for electric cars. The company is backed by Khosla Ventures, GM Ventures and Itochu. 12). Xilectric: Xilectric is re-making the “Edison Battery,” which traditionally has been a rechargeable nickel iron battery. But Xilectric is making it out of aluminum and magnesium, which it says will make it more low cost and with higher performance. The company was awarded a $1.73 million grant from the DOE. 13). Amprius: Based on research from Stanford’s Yi Cui, Amprius is working on lithium ion batteries that use a nanostructured silicon material for the anode. The nanostructured material could shrink the anode fourfold and allow a fourfold increase in energy density. The company has raised at least $25 million from Trident Capital, VantagePoint Venture Partners, IPV Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Eric Schmidt. Updated: This article was updated on January 14th at 10:30AM to correct the name of the show that Ambri’s founder did an interview on, from The Daily Show to The Colbert Report.
News Article | February 28, 2013
The fifth most powerful business woman in America according to Fortune, DuPont’s CEO Ellen Kullman, has spent the last few years restructuring the two century-old company around using science to help meet the needs of a world population that will balloon to 9 billion by 2050. One of those crucial needs will be access to energy, and in particular energy that doesn’t contribute to changing the world’s climate, which is why Kullman found herself on Tuesday giving a speech before thousands of energy geeks at the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E Summit. DuPont, which has a market cap of $44 billion, “is not an energy company, it’s a science company,” Kullman reminded the audience. But with its industrial material products, high-yield agriculture strains, and bio-based chemicals, DuPont is a major supplier of materials for solar manufacturers, and is building a ground-breaking cellulosic ethanol plant in Iowa. “No industry needs innovation more than energy,” said Kullman. Following Kullman’s remarks, we sat down with the 57-year-old, who is DuPont’s first female CEO, to ask her about working with startups, how they’ll overcome the hurdles of biofuels, and just how bullish she is on solar. The following is an edited interview: How can startups work with DuPont? What are you guys looking for? It depends on the area. We work with a lot of startups and small companies and we do a lot of collaboration. We’ve long transitioned to a belief that our ideas aren’t the only great ones out there and we are openly looking to collaborate — we call it inclusive innovation. Some of the problem’s we’re facing are so complex that you can get there faster and smarter if you do it with others that have skill sets that align with where we’re going or with what we need. We’ve been working with Genencor, a Palo Alto startup, since the 90’s and the idea was to use agriculture to create industrial materials and fibers. We had certain parts of it and they had other parts of it. There can be great synergy, but you have to get really specific. We tried before to paint the world with a large partnership with a university or a company without that definition and it doesn’t really go anywhere. A lot of times we think we know what we want, and when we engage we find out that there’s a whole other side of this that they [the startup] can bring that we hadn’t really comprehended before. We bought Innovalight, which is helping us from the standpoint of silicon inks for solar photovoltaics. We don’t buy them all, right? The relationship is really dependent on the needs of each company and can span a contract to a JV to a purchase or a minority equity investment. The more inflexible we are the less successful we’re going to be. Is there a strategy for acquiring startups? The reason I ask is because it seems like a lot of the IT and web ecosystem has been built around companies like Cisco or Google aggressively acquiring startups, but the science sectors don’t seem to have this kind of acquisition ecosystem. It has to be, to what end. You want to put out real money and the question is how will it create value for our shareholders? So it tends to be very specific to an area. Like the solar area we might be looking broadly at novel materials, or novel processes, that we can bring in that can enhance our position. So it’s not a strategy to acquire, but an open strategy to create the strongest future whether its acquisition or JV or licensing. It’s about creating shareholder value. Areas that we’re very active in is agriculture, nutrition, and industrial biosciences and advanced materials. A lot of people, including myself, are watching the ground-breaking of the cellulosic ethanol plant in Iowa with great interest. But many companies have tried to do this and have struggled. Why will DuPont succeed in this area when others have not? We’ve been working at this for awhile — a decade. We had very specific milestones we had to meet from a tech standpoint and a scale up standpoint. We had a 150,000 gallon plant that had to meet certain criteria before we would go to the next step. This was the second major project we did from that standpoint. The first was the Bio-PDO that goes into fibers and carpets. We had an understanding and a lot of experience that told us we could get this done. But we don’t start putting a shovel in the ground until the milestones are met. We already have the relationships with the farmers in the communities that will provide the raw materials for the plant. And we understand how much it’s going to cost to collect and store, and that’s all part of the economics. I was really impressed with the work that the team did in laying that all out five years ago. I think we have a much better shot at being successful because we have all of these areas moving at the same time. We keep building on our learnings from previous projects and it’s helping us do it faster and understand what we need from others and I think it’s going to create a huge potential for success. Has the process of moving the cellulosic ethanol plant along taken longer than expected? It’s never short enough for me. They [her executive team] would probably tell you that it exceeded their expectations. It’s this tug of war. DuPont is a major supplier for materials and that makes it susceptible to the vulnerabilities of the solar cell and panel market right now. Are you still as bullish on the solar materials sector as the $2 billion DuPont was planning on selling for 2014? I think we’re bullish on solar PV. We believe that the progress that has been made around efficiency has been tremendous in the last few years. I remember thinking when crystalline silicon got to 12 percent efficiency that it was impressive and now they’re pushing 20 [percent]. I think that materials matter. It’s not only the efficiency of the cell when it starts, it’s the efficiency 25 years later. So weatherization, things like that, become very important and materials matter in that. I think we’ll get there. I think we’ll get to parity on average in 2015. If you look at what China’s announced for their 5 year plan to install 21 GW is helping right. But I think it’s going to be bumpy. Any new technology transition is bumpy. And you’ve just got to be able to put it in perspective for those bumps. How much we sell in 2014, or 2015, will depend on how many modules are built, right? But I think the science is there and we just have to continue to make the progress. What would you want to see from the government in the energy and clean power sectors? Stable government policy. I think stability around that is very important. Consistent government policy is a really important part of a secure and a more diverse energy future.
News Article | February 26, 2014
A fuel cell for space. Batteries that use air. A way to tap pine trees and extract biofuels like maple syrup from a maple tree. These are just some of the “out-there” energy innovations that researchers and entrepreneurs are hard at work building in labs across the U.S., and which were on display at the fifth annual energy innovation-focused ARPA-E Summit this week. As snow fell gently on the Gaylord Convention Center on the banks of the Potomac, just outside of Washington D.C., over 260 energy technology projects were showcased across diverse sectors from biofuels, to power grid analytics, to next-gen batteries. Most of the scientists and innovators at the conference have a few things in common. The bulk are funded by the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program, which gives small grants (a million dollars or so) to early-stage, high-risk “moonshots” that can advance energy technology. Some of the researchers work at university labs, some work at startups, others work in the R&D divisions of big companies. A lot of these scientists are examples of what Bill Gates once (lovingly) referred to as crazy energy entrepreneurs working on energy miracles. Underlying the bright ideas and goodwill, there’s a general acknowledgement that the ARPA-E program is, indeed, small. Its budget is only a couple hundred million dollars (currently at $275 million) and at times it has had to fight for survival. Many of the technologies that get funding in the program are so early stage, it’s hard to deliver success stories, and even harder to scale these research projects beyond the lab and into real companies. This year, compared to previous years, there were notably fewer highlighted startups, much more university research and even fewer venture capital investors walking the floor. Most VCs have by now have learned that it’s just really difficult to make easy, fast money from backing these energy miracles. Still, if there’s proof that energy innovation is alive and well — and didn’t die when Silicon Valley fled cleantech — you’ll find it at ARPA-E. The researchers are unpolished; many will fail. But their imaginations are deep and their ideas are earnest. And they’re all hard at work trying to hit milestones to move their technologies to the next phase. Here’s some of the weird, wacky, and downright cool technologies (I’m not telling you which is which) spied at the show this year: Tapping pine trees for biofuels: Researchers at the University of Florida are using metabolic engineering to increase the number of energy-dense molecules in pine trees so that they could potentially be tapped like maple trees. The molecules are called wood terpenes, and the substance they can extract is called turpentine. The team, which raised close to $7 million from ARPA-E, wants to boost the amount of turpentine in the pines from 4 percent to 20 percent of its weight. A 3D-printed electric car motor: And you thought 3D printing was just for toys and design models. A group of researchers at aerospace giant United Technologies Research Center is using 3D-printing techniques to make a high-efficiency electric car motor that uses fewer rare earth materials and less energy, doesn’t rely on a global supply chain and can be made more compact. The process uses a laser to deposit layers of copper and insulation, instead of winding wires in the traditional fashion. Diamond semiconductors: When diamonds are doped up with boron or phosphorus, they’re great electricity conductors — they can withstand higher temperatures at a higher performance than silicon. But of course they’re very expensive. Researchers at Arizona State University have developed a new process to grow doped diamond crystals to be used as semiconductors for a much lower cost. Michigan State University is also working on making doped diamonds for high-powered semiconductors. Thermal batteries for electric cars: Saving the battery power of an electric car to power the vehicle — instead of running the air conditioning or the in-car electronics — could significantly extend the range of an electric car. Researchers at MIT are working on a battery-type energy storage device that can absorb a lot of water using an engineered material of zeolites and graphene. The “absorptive battery” could provide heating or cooling for about an hour, without using the batteries that would be powering the car. The MIT researchers are testing out the technology with Ford and got a $2.7 million ARPA-E grant. UTRC is also working on a so-called thermal battery — or hot and cold battery — for electric cars using a vapor compression system that absorbs a refrigerant on a metal salt. University of Texas, Austin has a project developing a hot-cold battery for EVs that uses “phase change materials” that release and store energy as they move from a gas to a liquid stage. When it’s completed, the UT Austin the researchers hope their thermal battery can extend an EV’s range by a third. Dust devil energy: This might be the most out-there idea at the show. The researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology are looking at ways to harness the energy in dust devils, a naturally occurring phenomenon that takes place when a wind vortice is created from solar heated air on the ground. The project looks to create man-made dust devils in a sort of wind turbine. Air batteries: The ARPA-E program has a whole bunch of projects working on batteries that use air as a key component (for electric cars and grid storage). Some of the work is coming from substantial companies like Fluidic Energy, which I wrote about last year, or PolyPlus, which I covered a couple years ago. Other air battery projects, like a newly announced aluminum-air battery that Phinergy and aluminum giant Alcoa are working on, are still very early-stage research. A “closed” fuel cell for space: NASA was showing off a fuel cell that is closed, and is “non-flow-through” so it requires no maintenance, uses reactants that can be stored at high pressures, and has no moving parts. NASA has already been practicing powering one of its lunar rovers with the non-flow-through fuel cell. Turning tobacco into fake shark liver molecules: Squalene is a compound that is mostly obtained from shark liver and is used in cosmetics and vaccine technology. But killing millions of sharks to extract their livers is a huge problem. A project from Texas A&M University, called SynShark, is working on a way to genetically modify tobacco leaves to make squalene.
News Article | September 2, 2014
Some emerging technologies first come to market in business-to-business applications—LED lights, for example, took hold in TVs before consumer bulbs. Hardware startup FINSix has found the opposite to be true: its initial product will be squarely aimed at consumers, thanks in large part to a successful Kickstarter campaign. Early next year, the company plans to release Dart, a power adapter for laptops that’s one-quarter the size and one-sixth the weight of the “bricks” that normally come with laptops. The $79 device also features an integrated USB charger and a sleek design with colors that recall iPods more than plain laptop power cords. So far, on-the-go consumers have shown a good amount of interest: FINSix managed to raise more than $500,000 through a Kickstarter program after showing off prototypes of the Dart at the CES consumer electronics conference earlier this year. The company notes that conventional power adapters add another 25 percent of the weight and volume of a laptop, even as more consumers are buying very small “ultrabooks” to save on weight. The Dart represents a change of plan for FINSix, formerly known as OnChip Power. The company was formed in 2010 by a group of MIT students who wanted to commercialize a new type of power electronics that offers various performance benefits than today’s products, including better energy efficiency. The founders originally thought the technology would appeal to makers of LED lighting because it offers a more efficient way to deliver power. But when they talked to potential investors about applications, the idea of a miniature, multi-purpose power converter kept resonating, CEO Vanessa Green says. The Kickstarter campaign, which comes on top of about $8 million in investment cash, validated the idea and gave the company the means to move into production. It also gave the design team some valuable feedback. “There’s a real pull from this space. This lets us use this as our entry point and expand into other markets,” she says. Power electronics convert the alternating current (AC) signal from the wall socket to the direct current (DC) used by electronics and other machines, such as electric motors and solar inverters. It’s not the most glamorous field in tech and not something most consumers ever even think about. But many experts believe it’s an area that is ripe for innovation: the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E agency notes that a large amount of energy is wasted in switching between AC and DC and that 80 percent of the electricity in the U.S. will flow through power converters. In addition to improving power adapters for portable electronics, this technology can yield better and cheaper transmission equipment for electric utilities, according to ARPA-E. Power converters in electronic devices deliver small packages of charge in a way that suits a particular device—a laptop operates at a higher voltage and wattage than a smartphone, for example. Switches inside power adapters take the energy from the wall, temporarily store it in components called inductors and capacitors, and then deliver little chunks of DC power to electronics. FINSix says its switching operates 1,000 times faster than traditional products, which means its converters can use smaller components to store energy. The company’s first product is a stand-alone adapter, but the technology could also be embedded into laptops themselves, Green notes. Another benefit of the Kickstarter campaign is that it showed potential customers in power cord manufacturing that there is interest in smaller adapters, she says. Earlier this year, the company switched its headquarters to the San Francisco Bay Area from Boston, where it still keeps a development team. The move was done because a number of key hires were out West, and because it’s a good location to work with supply chain partners, Green says. A handful of other startups are trying to take advantage of advances in power electronics in different ways. Goleta, CA-based Transphorm has developed a new semiconductor material that makes power conversion more efficient, and Woburn, MA-based Gridco Systems has developed a set of power flow controllers for electric utilities. FINSix has its hands full getting its laptop adapter certified, built, and delivered to consumers, but Green says there’s room to improve the technology’s power conversion efficiency and address different types of products. “We’ve targeted the consumer markets but the technology and the core miniaturization of power electronics is a differentiator. There’s an opportunity for the technology to make a broader impact,” she says.
News Article | June 23, 2015
We used to think that technology was about devices. We were wrong. Those feeble plastic and glass exoskeletons are nowhere near as important as the batteries that power them. Which is why the race to a better battery is fueled by insane hype—threaded with genuine innovation. The market for a better battery is potentially enormous. Yet as our gadgets and cars have evolved, the batteries powering them have remained pretty much unchanged. And while the press is full of reports of eureka-moment “breakthroughs,” it’s turned out to be remarkably difficult to commercialize any of this new technology on a broader scale, as journalists like Kevin Bullis and Steve LeVine have chronicled (more on that later). Making battery magic in a lab is one thing. Figuring out how to reproduce that magic safely, in a factory, millions of times over, at a price that’s competitive? That’s another. Yet the race continues: Electric car makers are looking for cheaper, lighter, more powerful and durable cells. Electronics makers are looking for more reliable cells that can charge faster and last longer. For makers of medical implants and even wearable technology, it’s a battery small enough to “disappear.” Meanwhile, renewable energy companies are looking for batteries that can charge and discharge thousands and thousands of times and remain stable. The breakthroughs that we seem to hear about on a weekly basis are real. But there’s an increasingly apparent gap between a breakthrough and its adoption. I looked into three areas of buzz-y battery research to find out how close they are to—as that tired old adage goes—truly changing the world. Let’s start with an emerging technology that does away with a very dangerous problem with current lithium ion batteries: Their enthusiasm for bursting into flame without warning. These are called solid state batteries—there are many types—and to understand how they avoid instantaneous conflagration, it helps to know a bit about why this phenomenon occurs in lithium ion batteries in the first place. Most conventional lithium ion batteries are made of up two electrodes (the anode and cathode), separated by some sort of liquid electrolyte, or the medium that conducts the lithium-ions moving from anode to cathode. The problem is that this electrolyte is very flammable—if it’s damaged or punctured, the battery will catch fire. Leading to things like, uh, this: Solid state batteries do away with the liquid electrolyte altogether. Instead, they use a layer of some other material, usually a mixture of metals, to conduct ions between the electrodes and create energy. But that’s only half the reason solid state technology is so exciting. Because there’s no liquid component in these cells—and because they require fewer extra layers of insulation and other safeguards—they tend to be smaller, lighter, and more adaptable than their fire-happy predecessors. That makes them very interesting to carmakers looking for a lighter, safer battery for their electric vehicles. The Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, is running multiple projects to either develop solid state lithium ion batteries, or solid state batteries that do away with lithium altogether. Then there’s a leader in solid state, Sakti3, an 8-year-old company based in Ann Arbor headed up by CEO Ann Marie Sastry. A profile from MIT Technology Review’s Kevin Bullis gives us a glimpse into the work Sakti3 and Sastry are doing, which focuses on figuring out how to build solid state lithium ion batteries at scale: Sakti3’s work sounds exciting, but the company has been extremely secretive about its technology, so we don’t know exactly what it uses as its electrolyte—which could certainly end up affecting the cost or manufacturability of these batteries on a larger scale. We do know Sakti3 has attracted investments from major players, including GM’s venture arm, and claimed last year that it had doubled the energy density of the average lithium ion battery. Another solid state company, QuantumScape, is similarly quiet—but is rumored to be working on similar ideas with solid state tech. So, why aren’t we riding around with solid state batteries under our hoods? It’s still fairly early days for commercializing on that scale. One of the biggest challenges with battery tech isn’t just the electrochemical secret sauce, it’s replicating that secret sauce in a factory, for a price lower than that of conventional cells, with greater regularity, at massive scale. It’s a paradigm that the author Steve LeVine knows well. LeVine’s new book The Powerhouse, published this spring, is a deep dive into the rise—and fall—of a company attempting to commercialize just one of those Eureka-Game-changing-Aha-Moment-Battery-Innovations. He spent years following Envia, a battery startup that eventually secured a contract with GM to supply its cathodes, made from nickel, manganese, and cobalt, to power GM’s Volt. Until it all fell apart when the cathodes didn’t perform the way Envia claimed they would. As LeVine explained to me on a recent call—and as he echoed in a story in Quartz this week, the most exciting thing in battery tech right now isn’t the battery. It’s the manufacturing process. “I’ve gotten very excited about what’s possible by figuring out how to bring down costs through manufacturing breakthroughs,” he said, pointing out that the Department of Energy is now focusing on staging competitions that ask entrants to focus on innovating the manufacturing process rather than the electrochemical science of the batteries themselves. “I think that’s the place to watch,” he added. The Tesla Gigafactory under construction in March, via the Tesla Forum. Even Elon Musk is trying to solve this particular problem. His Gigafactory, which is currently underway in Nevada, is a massive bet on the idea that Tesla can beat out its competitors simply by putting the entire battery manufacturing process under one roof. Keep in mind, this is for batteries that aren’t particularly groundbreaking. But this game is about economies of scale—and even Musk is enduring criticism that his battery factory might be obsolete before it opens as other breakthroughs in battery tech emerge. That’s a big and polemical theoretical, but it helps illustrate how mercurial the battery industry is right now. Even though lithium is the king of battery materials, it has plenty of other drawbacks besides bursting into flames. Not only is it expensive to mine, but it’s less efficient than some other materials at releasing electrons, as Chemistry World recently explained, which makes it slower to charge and discharge. So, what about batteries that don’t need any lithium at all, some of which could charge your phone in seconds—at least theoretically? An Israeli company named Phinergy has talked up one exciting but fraught contender over the past few years: An aluminum air battery. In these batteries, one electrode is an aluminum plate. The other is oxygen. More specifically, oxygen and a water electrolyte. When the oxygen interacts with the plate, it produces energy. Aluminum air batteries have been around for a long time, though interest in them has intensified over the last few years. A much-cited 2002 study from the Journal of Power Sources brought it into the spotlight, when a group of researchers argued that aluminum-air batteries are the only feasible replacement for gasoline. In theory, these batteries could have 40 times the capacity of lithium ion batteries, and Phinergy says they could extend the range of EVs to 1,000 miles. So, it’s time to ask again: Why aren’t we all driving around in oxygen-powered cars? Well, the chemical reaction that produces energy in these batteries also happens to come with a considerable drawback. As it interacts with the oxygen, the aluminum degrades over time. It’s a type of battery called a “primary” cell, which means current only flows one way, from the anode to the cathode. That means they can’t be recharged. Instead, the batteries have to be swapped out and recycled after running down. That’s a big infrastructure problem when it comes to widespread use. “For EVs that might be an okay situation once the infrastructure is in place for service stations to swap out new and used batteries from vehicles,” explained University of Michigan Battery Lab’s Greg Less via email. “But until that occurs, a secondary [rechargeable] cell, like Lithium-Ion will be preferable.” Aluminum air batteries certainly wouldn’t be feasible for gadgets, because they would need to have their batteries swapped out regularly. Still, research is continuing on aluminum air, and there are several companies claiming they’ll bring it to market within the next few years, including Phinergy. A company called Fuji Pigment also claimed recently that it had made a huge leap forward. Fuji says that it’s figured out a way to protect the aluminum with insulating materials, so it would be able to recharge without being swapped. Even if the aluminum air contenders fail, researchers are increasingly pointing towards aluminum as the battery material of the future. It’s a hot field right now: Just while I was writing this article, another piece of battery news was announced—this one from a lab at Stanford that uses aluminum and graphite as electrodes, connected by a safe liquid electrolyte. The group at Stanford says their battery can charge a smartphone in under a minute and can be “drilled through” and still remain functional. Of course, more research remains to be done. Another major issue with conventional batteries is their size. While almost every other part of our electronics get smaller, batteries are still pretty hefty. For example, the newest Apple laptop is defined by its battery size—which, even though it’s designed in a super-efficient tiered structure, still takes up most of the space in the body. This is a problem that goes way beyond laptops, though. Think of medical implants, which need a power supply small enough to sit inside the human body. Or ambitious long-term airborne craft projects like Solar Impulse, which need feather-light batteries to store energy. Finally, what about Project Jacquard, which seeks to wire computers into our very clothing—hopefully without a pound of lithium tucked into a pocket. More and more research is focusing on what are called “3D” microbatteries. What’s the difference between 2D and 3D? Well, think of a 2D version as a simple sheet cake: There are two electrodes, separated by an electrolyte. These can get super-thin, but you’re limited to a very thin cake with a pretty low power output. In comparison, a 3D battery is more like a roll cake (ok, it’s an imperfect metaphor) where you can increase the surface area of the electrodes by tightly interlocking them in microscopic layers. By increasing the surface area, you make it easier for ions to travel from one electrode to the other—which increases the battery’s power density, or the rate at which it charges and discharges. Scientists are exploring many ways to manufacture these tiny wonders. In 2013, a team from Harvard used a 3D printer to get the extreme precision needed to intertwine nano-sized anodes and cathodes using a lithium “ink.” But more recently, a team from University of Illinois published a paper showing how they used a technique called holographic lithography to make a 3D battery. In it, super-precise optical beams are used to create a 3D structure—in this case, the electrodes—out of a photoresist (think of it as a three-dimensional unexposed negative) which in turn become the battery itself. Why is this better than 3D printing? Well, for one thing, holographic lithography isn’t as nascent as 3D printing, so it may have more promise when it comes to scaling up. However, like all batteries, there’s a tradeoff here between power density, the rate that a battery produces energy, and energy density, the overall capacity of a battery—as GizMag’s Brian Dodson explained in a post about the research. It’s tough to be good at both of those things, but that’s exactly what the Illinois team is trying to do. If they succeed at commercializing their tech, it could be big. Again, that’s a mighty “if.” Indeed, one of the paper’s authors, UI professor William King, told Gizmodo via email that the big hurdle now is figuring out how to turn this into a commercial technology. “Since our first article was published on this technology, we’ve managed to increase the battery energy density by about a factor of 3, by using new, higher energy materials,” he said. Still, “the key challenge is manufacturing scale-up, which we have been working on diligently.” One of the problems with replicating a breakthrough in a lab is that often, we don’t really know what’s happening inside the battery itself. This sounds simple, but it’s a massive challenge and arguably the biggest thing holding up battery innovation: We can’t actually observe what’s going on at a molecular level. It’s why so many battery breakthroughs seem to be accidental or unexplainable—and why they fall flat when their inventors can’t reproduce the same effects in a controlled way. So I talked with one researcher who isn’t focusing on building batteries—he’s focusing on seeing inside of them. Michael Toney, of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, is leading the way towards actually observing what’s happening inside a battery without cracking it open or disturbing the process. Toney and his colleagues are using spectroscopic imaging and nanoscale x-rays to understand exactly what’s happening inside, say, a lithium ion battery when it’s charging. As Toney told me, the ultimate goal is to be able to view what’s happening on an atomic level. For now though, his team can view the chemical processes to determine how, for example, an anode might be leading to voltage fade, or a gradual loss of energy over time. Eventually, Toney says the same technology could lead to software that can realistically tell you how your battery is doing—not just guess, as your phone’s little bar system does now. But that’s small potatoes compared to being able to see how batteries actually work. Because the strangest thing about the race to build a battery than can replace fossil fuels isn’t just that there are so many contenders—it’s that knowing why they succeed or fail is so incredibly hard. While we want a breakthrough battery to be as simple as a successful experiment, it increasingly seems like finding it will be a long, incremental research effort that will see many successes and failures before all is said and done. After all, this is the Infrastructure Age. Don’t expect it to end before it even begins.
News Article | August 19, 2015
The White House doesn't want anyone to panic over its new climate rules. Instead of marking a big shift, the Obama team believes the Clean Power Plan is piggybacking on trends already under way in the economy: Natural gas is killing off coal; solar and wind are cheaper than ever; state-level renewable energy and climate policies are spreading. Americans won't feel a thing. That's why the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, in her first public appearance since the release of the climate plan, emphasized that the rules wouldn't cause a disruption for energy companies. "I don't expect that the energy industry is going to take a right turn," Gina McCarthy said last week. Yet just a short jaunt across the National Mall from the EPA's headquarters, another part of the executive branch is taking the opposite approach. The Department of Energy is identifying technologies that make such "right turns" possible and desirable, even for asset-heavy, conservative industries. A program, Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), already manages dozens of research initiatives to develop basic scientific research into commercially viable technology that, widget by widget, can help rebuild America's 100-year-old power system into something suitable for the 21st century. This is the part of the government focused on a future of electric cars sipping from the grid instead of the pump and of utilities putting out more power with fewer resources. What the agency does, according to Ellen Williams, ARPA-E's director, is "de-risk" unproven technologies so that companies and investors can have greater confidence in eventual successes. ARPA-E's is a long-term gambit. Here are five obstacles the government future-of-energy program is trying to overcome in the years ahead. Lithium-ion batteries, which power computers and electric vehicles, are too heavy, expensive, and wasteful. That's a particularly big problem when it comes to packing many batteries into something small like a car. The units are pressed together, cell by cell, which makes individual components difficult to monitor and manage. The power business generally sells perfection as the norm, with somewhere between 99.9 percent and 99.999 percent reliability. Amped (Advanced Management and Protection of Energy Storage Devices) is a big project, even for ARPA-E, an effort linking 14 research partners in a bid to make electric car batteries safer, more efficient, and cheaper. Today's batteries are products. ARPA-E wants super-efficient, smart, affordable battery power systems, perhaps even designed to become part of the structure of cars themselves. Ford Motor received $3.1 million to develop a battery that's 10 times more precise than current ones. Palo Alto Research Center is embedding fiber optic sensors into batteries to measure their temperatures and the strains that come as they expand and contract during use. Other groups are working on fault sensors, temperature regulators, and wireless sensing. Researchers on the Range (Robust Affordable Next Generation Energy Storage Systems) program are redesigning batteries to fit the safety, size, and cost requirements of carmakers and utilities. University of Houston and University of Maryland labs are developing water-based batteries that work like today's lithium-ion units but are safer because they use organic chemicals instead of volatile ones. China supplies about 90 percent of the world's rare earth metals, a group of 17 chemical elements used in everything from electronics and MRI machines to oil refineries. Industries dependent on Chinese output had a scare several years ago when the world's biggest producer dramatically slashed its exports, sending prices to historic levels. ARPA-E funds research determined to squeeze rare-earth metals out of supply chains altogether. The React (Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies) program works with 14 university, government, and private research partners to develop magnets, motors, and generators that don't require much or any rare earth metal. Baldor Electric, a company in Greenville, S.C., is developing a rare-earth-free electric car motor that's lightweight and has fewer moving parts. Energy production requires vast amounts of water for cooling, a problem if the forecast calls for drought. ARID (Advanced Research In Dry cooling) is the ARPA-E project trying to make sense of a future that demands more energy with less water. Generators lose some 60 percent of the energy in their fuels as heat. Big coal, gas, and nuclear power plants use water to carry that heat away. The industry has largely abandoned the practice of sucking in water from rivers or lakes, running it through the plant, and flushing it back. Today, many plants reuse water but still lose billions of gallons every day to evaporation. ARPA-E has committed $30 million to researchers working on "dry cooling," which uses air to carry away waste heat. Promising technologies, like those being studied at the University of Maryland, take advantage of novel materials that act as "heat exchangers," removing energy from the water and spitting it out elsewhere. Another technology, under development at Stanford, is a kind of window for infrared energy that vents heat from a building, right up and out of the atmosphere. The shale gas industry loses about 2 percent of its product to the sky. That's bad for two reasons: Companies lose money, and everybody loses with more heat-trapping methane accumulating in the sky. ARPA-E is funding 11 university and private research centers to bring advanced monitoring technology to bear on this loss of gas, hence its contrived project name. It's more complicated than turning on mechanical sniffers and tightening leaky pipes. Monitoring systems need to be able to sense the gas but also pinpoint its origin from its direction and flow rate. Gizmos like that will come in handy for both the Clean Power Plan and Obama's next regulatory proposal—released yesterday—which targets this wasted methane.