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Journal Journal: Full transcript for the Argonne interview

My interview with Argonne National Lab spokesman Jeff Chamberlain yielded 1, 2, 3 Motley Fool articles and 1, 2 Slashdot front-page postings. Not too shabby.

But much of the raw material still ended up on the cutting room floor.

Waste not, want not. So here's the full 3,000-word transcript of our 30-minute phone interview. Enjoy!

Q: How much smaller and more efficient can the power source become in something like your cellphone or an electric car? What is the potential?
A: In general... You know what? When I came out of graduate school in 1993, as a physical chemist, one of my co-workers told us, "Oh, we're all getting jobs," and he told us he's getting a job in the battery field. And many of us told him, in 1993, that he made a mistake because batteries were done. I worked in the semiconductor field, so I was like, "Oh man, semiconductors are it! Why are you going into batteries? That's old news."
Now, I didn't know that in 1991, just two years before I finished my graduate school career, Sony had commercialized the first lithium ion battery. Between then and now, there's been something like a doubling in the energy density. What that means is, you can hold twice as much energy in the same space. And the costs dropped by half.
This is a lot of science and engineering that's gone into making this happen in the last 20 years but maybe the most important thing for your readers is that, in that 20-year span, there's been a $13 billion market that has arisen. And that is purely for portable electronics like cell phones and laptops. There's a little tiny sliver of that $13 billion that automotive, that's just now beginning to take off. So the question of "Where could we go?" ... What's fascinating is that part of the answer to that question is that the advent of lithium ion has truly enabled transportation uses. Because if you remember your freshman chemistry, you think of the periodic table, lithium is in the upper left-hand corner of the periodic table. Only hydrogen and helium are lighter on an atomic basis. And I have to give the Department of Energy credit: In the early '90s. they saw that suddenly there was a battery technology with the potential and likelihood of fueling vehicles because the element being used was so light.
Where can we go from here? So right now we have this great Tesla car out there that for most of us is not affordable, but it's an unbelievable vehicle. If you've never driven one, obviously, I strongly recommend it. It's an amazing car, okay?
I drive a Chevy Volt, I'm GM's dream customer because I live 18 miles from work and it's a 40-mile charge to the battery, roughly. So I hardly ever need gasoline. I have a net saving of about $180 a month, depending on the price of gas, compared to my old vehicle.
But where could we go?
What's happened -- one key thing for you and your readers to understand is, the term "lithium ion" does not represent one technology. Compared to alkaline batteries that you buy at Walgreens or the grocery store, or the lead acid battery in your car, those names actually are very good descriptors of the chemistry set that is inside the battery. So all alkaline batteries have the same electrochemistry and electrolyte chemistry. Same with lead acid.
That is not true for lithium ion.
Lithium ion commercial batteries typically have lithium cobalt oxide at the cathode and graphite carbon at the anode, and there's not a single car that uses those chemistries that's on the market today. Within lithium ion, all that really means is that ions are shuttled back and forth between the cathode and the anode. You can design these cathode and anode materials to be high power, or high energy, or low cost, or environmentally friendly, and it's all called lithium ion.
And the reason I'm telling you this is, what's common to lithium ion is a dramatic shift in the anodes. So instead of graphitic carbon, there's been a push in the last five years to use silicon. Because silicon can hold 7 times as much lithium as graphitic carbon can.
The only reason that's not commercial today is, the silicon swells about 300% when you put lithium in it. So, there's all kinds of science and engineering around this. Can we use silicon at the anode? If we can, we'll give a massive energy boost to the battery.
That's just one example. Another example is, can you get cathode chemistry to hold more energy? And there are electrolytes that can operate at a higher voltage, which then enables more energy being extracted from the electrode materials.
So altogether, we believe that in lithium ion batteries, we will be able to ultimately get about 2 to 3 times the performance of where we are today.

Q: Are you looking beyond that? Other chemistries that don't rely on lithium?
A: So the lithium ion path depends -- there's the Joint Center of Energy Storage research, which is looking beyond that 2 to 3 times. Our objective in the Batteries and Energy Storage Hub is to get 5 times the energy density of what was the original baseline in 2011. In other words, to go beyond the theoretical capabilities of lithium ion.
So we're working with magnesium and aluminum. The reason those are important is their multi-valence. So for every atom, instead of releasing one electron per reaction you release two or three. And they're heavier atoms but if you do the math, if you couple those materials with the metallic anodes, so instead of a carbon or silicon anode that the ion penetrates, those materials are hosts to those ions. If you can electro-plate those metals (in the cathode), you're likely to get a huge jump down in costs. Because you no longer... the host material to accept the ion, you plate the ion out as a metal.
So yes, we're looking at multi-valence systems like magnesium and aluminum. We're also looking at batteries where you get covalent bonds like lithium sulfur.
We were studying lithium oxygen and we just decided in these last few months that the amount of effort it would take to do the science and engineering around a battery that takes oxygen from the air is too difficult for our resources under our 5-year plan.
We won't meet it in five years so we stopped research.
So yes, we are looking at multiple avenues that reach well beyond lithium ion. It's an important point here that you and I as tax payers, we fund this research like a mutual fund. 2/3 of the Argonne energy work is focused on advanced lithium ion. About 1/3 of it is focused on beyond lithium ion. In my view, that's an appropriate balance -- a portfolio of research that balances lower risk/medium term/medium reward batteries -- the batteries that are almost sure to come out -- in a portfolio where you balance that with higher-risk research that, should we obtain that magnesium battery, that's a big quantum leap up in efficacy and performance that would really be a game-changer.

Q: When you do come up with something new, or significant advances, do you then license that out to someone like Tesla, Panasonic, or Energizer, or do you commercialize it in other ways?
A: So it's hard to do. Generally speaking, we invent things and then license them out to startups or big companies. One of our big successes at Argonne a few years ago was, we licensed some new cathode battery materials to BASF, LG Chem, and General Motors. So those are all... BASF is the world's largest materials manufacturer, LG Chem is one of the world's largest automotive lithium ion battery manufacturers, and GM is either the first or second-largest auto maker. But we also licensed startups with the same materials, so we kind of played both sides of the coin.
What we decided to do in the Hub was to go a little further than that, and we have the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research. We have Dow Chemical, Johnson Controls, and Applied Materials. Dow is a materials manufacturer, Johnson Controls is one of the largest makers, mostly lead acid. And Applied Materials is a semiconductor company that makes manufacturing equipment, process equipment, for microchips and solar, and they're looking to get into energy storage.
And the most interesting aspect about having them on... first of all, having them on the JCESR with us shortens, by definition, the time frame from an invention to manufacturing because they're right there participating in it.
However, we cut a deal with those industrial players in such a way where we could still license to others. So we have a fourth corporate member that's called the Clean Energy Trust out of Chicago, it's a non-profit that's focused on enabling entrepreneurs. And, interestingly, participating in that entrepreneurial play is Dow Chemical, Applied Materials, and Johnson Controls, so they might actually hedge their bets and fund startups that they would look into acquiring later.
What I'm really telling you is, we have multiple avenues to commercialize the innovation. We're trying harder and harder to ingrain those avenues into the research itself.

Q: Do you work with other research institutions too? For example, researchers at Stanford recently found a way to wrap carbon nanofilm around pure lithium and get much higher storage capacities without the expanding anode effect? Is that something you work with Stanford on?
A: Yeah, so the Joint Center actually has 14 members, 4 of which I already described on the industrial side. We have 5 national labs and 5 universities, as well as individuals from MIT and Harvard. The universities are mostly midwestern, like the U of Chicago, Northwestern, University of Illinois.
One of the authors on that paper is Yi Cui, who is already in the Hub. That particular research was not funded by the Joint Center. But yes, we're well aware of that work. I've talked to Cui over and over. It's a really creative way of encapsulating the lithium to protect it, and prevent the growth of dendrites so we absolutely are aware of it, in fact we have a conference call tomorrow to talk about how the Hub might leverage that. If they solved the problem, then we can stop working on it and reallocate those resources. Now I will say, if you do a (termis it), there's a big difference between the journal article that he published and all the press that has latched onto it. It talks about a 99% lithium efficiency, which sounds really great and it is... but when you look at a battery like lithium ion, there's 99.99% efficiency.
What I mean by that is, 99% efficiency, in 100 cycles you'll be roughly left with 37% of the original capacity. That 1% kills you. (99.9% x 100 cycles = 90.5%, 99.99% = 99%. So 2 magnitudes up = 90% efficiency in 1,000 charges vs. 99% = 0.004% left...)
And I think the media has really picked up on that but if you read the journal article, what you see is he's explaining that it's a new method to protect the lithium. And Cui puts in there the good efficiency, but he also puts forward-looking statements about how this is a new technique to figure out how to stabilize lithium, and there's a lot of work ahead. I mean, that's my read on this article. So the press is a little bit over-hyped compared to the work itself.
But that's absolutely, we've been talking to Yi about that the last several months before it was published. And I hope... if he can solve the problem with lithium metal, that in itself is a game changer. See how the media has latched on to this article he's published because what I just told you about lithium ion, if we could get 2 or 3 times where we are today? You could make a kind of hybrid if you used lithium metal at the anode instead of a carbon host, and couple it with a traditional lithium ion cathode, you'd have a 4x jump. If he solves this problem, it's going to dramatically change the world.
But I think we're still some years away from using this technique in a commercial way.

Q: How do you weigh the work being done on higher efficiency against environmental concerns, costs, and so on?
A: It's a great question. We've got something in the Hub that we got a lot of use out of, called techno-economic modeling. So we have computer models that we developed over the last decade that have been adopted by the industry, in the EPA, various bodies around the world. It's an open source software.
We built that for our lithium ions, but what we mean by a techno-economic model is it takes everything into account from materials-level behavior like protecting the lithium from nano or micro spheres, and understanding the materials behavior in terms of things like ion transport, how quickly you can move energy in and out of that particle -- all the way up to the costs of the materials supply and the costs of manufacturing electrodes and the cost of the electronics that are used to protect the cells, and the cooling systems in a battery pack.
So our techno-economic model takes into account both the technology-oriented questions and the economic-oriented questions. So if we have an innovation, we can plug it into the model and determine its economic impact all the way out at the plant level -- building a plant to make batteries.
Now, how is that an answer to your question? Well, environmental impact is a part of that. That's a cost. Right? If we have a material that we're using, that's very expensive to handle or is very expensive to waste, we keep very much an eagle eye on what is it gonna take to be cost competitive with the internal combustion engine?
So opposed to doing materials science for the sake of materials science, we are keeping a very keen focus on costs. If an innovator comes up with a great battery that just needs the tiniest bit of plutonium... forget about our safety guys. They won't like that, right? Or various players in Washington wouldn't like the plutonium, but our TE model itself would say "No!"
Because the costs associated with using that environmentally hazardous material would execute it. Now, that said, that's a very extreme way to keep an eye on materials but there are softer ways as well. We're trying to use earth-abundant materials in all our research. We'd rather use carbon than promethium. We'd rather use aluminum than yttrium because it's earth abundant. And we can make a (halogen) argument and we can also make an argument for when we go and tabulate the costs of the ultimate battery, even when you're just dealing with the materials level we have these models that will spit it right back to us that we picked poor materials regardless of the technology performance because the costs are overwhelming.
By the way, having industrial partners helps us with that as well. There were some materials that we looked at 5 or 6 years ago that we viewed as somewhat hazardous. And when we were talking to Ford and Vishay about it, they said, "uhhh... that's not okay. (laughs) Our h-mat teams are telling us 'no' to that."
Even as we're doing the research, because the industry at hand, we're more likely to answering these questions of, "Is it truly viable even from an environmental perspective?" Not just from a performance and cost perspective.

Q: What should I have asked you about, but didn't?
A: The only thing is, I know you're focused on transportation but there is something that's more difficult to describe to the consumer, and that is the electricity grid.
Our electricity grid was built a certain way, and that way is to have on-demand production. So as I flip my light switch on at home, there's some little knob somewhere that turns the power up. There is no buffer. It's a very interesting production cycle compared to other consumer goods.
And the grid is changing. The grid was built a certain way, and the grid is currently changing in two different ways.
One is, well first our demand is increasing, but another is, around the world human beings are trying to get off fossil fuels and that means using solar and wind. Well, we cannot turn up the sun or wind, or turn down the sun or wind according to our energy needs. So the more those technologies penetrate the grid, the more you need energy storage. You need a buffer.
And that is a very difficult challenge that'ssimilarto transportation because it's cost-driven. But it's also different from transportation because we're not limited by volume or mass like we are in vehicles. So the only other (branch) I would tell you is that we're working on energy storage systems that are stationary.
And the other facet that the grid is changing is, micro-grids are emerging. The military wants to get off the grid because they view that as a susceptibility for being attacked by enemy combatants, but... Certainly in the U.S. but even more certainly in places like India, China, and Africa, there are small grids merge with wattage independence, and usually that will require a storage element.
So that's a little less tangible to the average... Many consumers know the value of the battery because when their iPad or iPhone is down to 10%, they start to get agitated because of battery power. And that translates very easily into thinking about batteries for cars. It's just a little more complex for the grid and that's another message that we're trying to get out: It might feel less tangible but when a hurricane like Sandy blows through New Jersey and knocks power out for days at a time, wouldn't it be nice if there were an inexpensive alternative that everyone had in their basement or every neighborhood had in a box somewhere, where they could have a small amount of power to keep the refrigerators running, for example? Or to keep (deviation) tool operating? There's this growing need for a stationary source that is a slightly different physics and chemistry problem than transportation-related storage.
We are working with Applied Materials on the grid issues. There are also a couple of startups that we're working with as well as one big company that's not a whole partner to the Hub, but... United Technologies Research Corporation is working with us on models for the grid. We also have relationships with utilities like SoCal Edison... the actual energy producers and grid operators, the utilities. We work with them as well.

Q: What about GE?
A: They are involved. GE... yes. So, they have built an energy storage device based on molten sulfur which is quite effective. But there are a couple of people from GE who are in our advisory committee for the Hub, and we're currently trying to rope them into the commercial entity arm. But they do advise us. Yes.

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