The world economy has a cyclical nature to it, with boom-and-bust cycles driven by various sectors. In the late 1990s it was the “dot com” boom, followed by the bust at the turn of the century. Then came the housing boom of the mid 2000s followed by the crash. Closer to my heart, was the cleantech and related battery technology boom at the late 2000s. That boom saw the emergence of multiple new startup companies, significant increase in R&D funding, and an influx of talent and ideas from different disciplines to solve the battery challenge.
There was one small problem with the battery boom: while there was a spate of new ideas, the market for battery-powered devices was still only consumer electronic applications. The world was not ready for electric cars or for renewable electricity coupled to storage systems. And what do you get when you have a boom not driven by market demand? You get a bust. We saw this bust play itself out in the first part of the last decade, with funding for cleantech and batteries largely drying up.
Megatrends spur boom
But there were a few megatrends that continued, albeit under the radar. First was the growing recognition that climate change is a significant threat that requires widespread decarbonization. Second, batteries were becoming cheaper and performing better, getting them closer to cost parity with fossil-powered equivalents. And most critically, consumers were starting to see the electric car as a cool new technology that is a better alternative to gasoline powered cars.
These megatrends have led to a new boom in all forms of energy storage. The R&D effort in this area is at an exciting stage as companies leverage resources to move into large-scale manufacturing, and the U.S. government commits to large-scale investments to help jumpstart this sector. Most importantly, in contrast to the last boom, the market for batteries is expected to grow in the terawatt-hours per year (TWh/year) range within the next decade.
With this market demand comes a nagging question: Can we manufacture batteries at the scale needed to meet the demand? Here are some numbers to highlight the challenge. The U.S. lithium-ion manufacturing capacity is about 55 gigawatt-hours per year (GWh/year). A typical Gigafactory is in the order of 25 GWh/year. To meet the demand, we need to build as many as 40 Gigafactories in the next decade!
Further, every factory needs the upstream components: battery cathodes, anodes, electrolytes, and current collectors; the precursors needed to make these materials; the minerals that underlie these components; and the equipment for the various processes from mining to manufacturing. And these factories must match the scale of the cell manufacturing capacity. And every one of these factories requires a workforce spanning multiple skill levels.
“What we need is an ecosystem where universities, national labs, and industry work together—up and down the supply chain, in tandem—toward a common goal. This is the only way to bridge the supply chain gap.” — Venkat Srinivasan, ACCESS Director
Bridging the gap
To make matters more complicated, the U.S. does not have its own supplies of nickel and cobalt—essential for today’s lithium-ion batteries. Extracting what we have in a cost-effective manner, with little environmental damage, is going to be essential. Recycling will need to play an increasingly important role to provide an alternate source for these metals as we explore substitutes for these critical elements. All these require new innovations.
The scale of the decarbonization challenge requires rapid translation of new innovations to manufacturing. What we need is an ecosystem where universities, national labs, and industry work together—up and down the supply chain, in tandem—toward a common goal. This is the only way to bridge the supply chain gap.
To create this ecosystem, last October we announced the formation of Li-Bridge, a unique public-private alliance committed to accelerating the development of a domestic battery supply chain. Li-Bridge is aimed squarely at lithium-based batteries so we can rapidly move towards the manufacturing scale needed for the market demand.
We need a holistic approach that examines not just the solutions for the next decade, but beyond. We need to enable a diverse set of materials and not just be dependent on one chemistry (in this case lithium-ion). We need better batteries that can continue to drive the cost down, enable fast charging, allow storage of energy for many days or weeks, and are inherently safer. All these require innovations that can diversify the materials requirement.
Meeting the challenge
The spring 2022 edition of the ACCESS newsletter showcases the multitude of approaches at play. We highlight Li-Bridge, its structure and partners. We also feature three science stories: a national lab effort focused on the fast charging of EV batteries; the importance of processing in enabling solid state batteries; and a conversation on transitioning from lithium to magnesium batteries.
To help us move toward this future, we highlight a new member to the ACCESS family, Shirley Meng, who joined Argonne in January as the Chief Scientist of ACCESS. Shirley is world renowned for her work on many aspects of battery technology and will drive the strategy on a new class of batteries that can satisfy the growing market needs. We are excited by Shirley’s move to the Chicagoland and what she will bring to the ecosystem.
And finally, we highlight another member of the ACCESS family, Sue Babinec. Sue has the distinction of being one of the very few who has seen the battery boom-and-bust cycles firsthand, as highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal profile of her career.
I’m optimistic we will meet the decarbonization challenge and make batteries at the scale needed to achieve a carbon-free future. I remain hopeful because, as Sue told the Wall Street Journal, “we are badass scientists.”
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.