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Article | Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science

Director’s message: On the road to deep decarbonization

Lithium-ion batteries have powered the last three decades. We need to reimagine storage to ensure the next three decades lead to a carbon-free world.

Lithium-ion batteries have powered us for the last three decades. We need to reimagine storage to ensure the next three decades lead to a carbon-free world.

The last year has seen a spate of climate-related disasters, ranging from devastating hurricanes, deadly wildfires, and unseasonable temperatures in much of the world. These events have put a spotlight on the rapid change in the earth’s climate and underscored the need to rapidly reverse the course. The need to deep decarbonize all the sectors of the economy has dominated the climate conversation, coupled with the sense that the future will require major adaptation to the environmental changes that have been set in motion. 

But deep decarbonization is going to be a lot harder than just selling a few hundred thousand electric cars (EVs) every year. Right now, EVs stand at around 2% of all domestic light duty vehicle sales. President Biden recently signed an executive order that set a goal to have 50% of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. be electric by 2030. Achieving this target will require aggressively increasing the battery manufacturing capacity while ensuring that all the upstream parts of the supply chain (material processing, mining/refining, and the associated equipment’s that are needed) are also built out. And examining the supply chain gives us pause because it’s not just the lack of production capacity in the U.S. that limits us: we just don’t have the nickel (and cobalt) to make these targets.

Recycling, once a good-to-have, appears to be critical to feeding the supply chain, along with substitutions away from critical minerals. We have a lot of work to do, and the federal government has released a National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries; a comprehensive strategy to address this challenge. 

Future storage concepts will depend heavily on a fundamental understanding of how materials work, how we can rapidly discover them, how they react, and how we can manipulate them to provide unprecedented behavior. — ACCESS Director Venkat Srinivasan

While promising, light duty vehicles may be the easiest part of the economy to decarbonize.  The rest of the transportation sector, from heavy duty trucks to shipping, rail, and aviation are going to be much harder to decarbonize. Case in point: electrifying a 737-class aircraft would require a battery that is four times more energy dense than today’s lithium-ion battery. Tweaking today’s battery chemistries are just not going to get us there. We need something radically different.

Decarbonizing the electricity sector, another critical issue, is also going to require a game-changing new storage device. The Department of Energy recently announced the long duration storage shot, as part of the Energy Earthshots Initiative. The target for the storage shot will be to reduce the cost of energy storage by 90% compared to 2020 lithium-ion battery costs for long duration (defined as greater than 10h) by 2030. These aggressive targets are going to require rethinking how energy is stored. 

And we need to deploy storage devices at scales that are unprecedented. When we think at these scales, we need to be cognizant of the supply chain issues that are plaguing lithium-ion batteries. The storage technologies of the future need to be earth abundant, recyclable, and non-toxic. 

These future storage concepts need to be invented and doing so will depend heavily on a fundamental understanding of how materials work, how we can rapidly discover them, how they react, and how we can manipulate them to provide unprecedented behavior. Doing so will require the kind of research that is performed at the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), a multi-institution Energy Innovation Hub led by Argonne aimed at discovering batteries beyond lithium-ion. 

This edition of the ACCESS newsletter examines many of these issues. We speak with George Crabtree, the director of JCESR, about the hub’s work to invent batteries of the future using a basic science approach. We highlight some of the recent work related to battery supply chains and the sustainability of lithium mining, as well as the need to think beyond batteries when it comes to the grid, with focus on hydro power. 

Lithium-ion batteries have powered us for the last three decades. We need to reimagine storage to ensure the next three decades lead to a carbon-free world. Doing so is going to require a village,” including fundamental science, applied R&D, scale-up research, industrial production, and deployment of systems at unprecedented scales. Each one of us have a role to play in this endeavor. 

We live in interesting times when it comes to the climate. May our future be a lot less interesting.

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://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.