Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory recruited Shirley Meng to serve as chief scientist of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS). She started her role in January and is tasked with driving energy storage research strategy at Argonne.
Meng has followed an interesting career path, earning her Ph.D. in materials science from the National University of Singapore, followed by stints as a research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a materials scientist and professor at University of California, San Diego (UCSD). She was founding director of USCD’s Sustainable Power and Energy Center, which conducts cutting-edge materials R&D for energy generation, storage, and conversion while emphasizing the training of diverse students to become tomorrow’s clean energy workforce.
In the Q&A below, Meng discusses her vision for energy storage, insights from her career, and her priorities as chief scientist.
Q: What role do you envision energy storage playing in the global energy system in 2030?
A: Energy storage holds one of the keys to a decarbonized economy. Batteries—the electrochemical form of energy storage—are particularly important for two sectors. In transportation, batteries are taking off. Around 2% of light-duty passenger cars are electrified. However, we still have billions of cars to go, and batteries will play a central role.
In the electricity sector, energy storage hasn’t made much of a dent yet, but the future looks promising. Storage is important for many facets of grid performance. With more renewables, it’s becoming more difficult for grid operators to balance supply and demand. Storage systems can help maintain that delicate balance. They can store electrons from excess solar and wind generation and help avoid curtailment of renewables. Batteries can respond to demand changes within seconds, helping maintain the grid’s power quality, stability, frequency, and resilience.
Q: What key insights have you gleaned from your career path, and how do they shape your view of the future of energy storage?
A: I’ve learned that a strong understanding of fundamental science—how materials perform at the atomic and molecular levels—translates into superior system performance. Atomic and molecular insights are important in every step of the technology development process, not just the early stages. My lab work at UCSD demonstrates how fundamental science can have a big impact on society. One of our papers published in Science in 2017 resulted in a startup company called South 8 Technologies that develops novel electrolytes for batteries operated in extreme conditions.
Another insight is that diversity is essential in science. It drives innovation. As an international student in the United States, I benefited from the welcoming nature of universities here. At UCSD’s Sustainable Power and Energy Center, I returned the favor and recruited students from all over the world. We had people coming from very different backgrounds who approached problems from different perspectives. I intentionally put diverse people together in teams and observed firsthand how a diverse team can generate creative insights. The problems we are trying to solve today are very complicated and cannot be addressed by one person. In fact, all my published papers were produced by teamwork.
I’m passionate about creating a diverse workforce. I’m also excited by Argonne’s strong recognition that today’s students are the pipeline to supporting its mission in the future—and that training diverse talent can build the human capital needed for innovation. With my background as a professor, I can help cultivate more educational opportunities for students to come here and take advantage of our cutting edge research tools, which include one of the best synchrotrons in the world. The first step is exploring how we can involve teachers and students from regional community colleges in our research. ACCESS Director Venkat Srinivasan and I meet regularly with a committee that is developing a holistic plan to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Q: Around the world, governments and businesses are setting ambitious climate goals. What are the biggest energy storage–related technical challenges that need to be addressed in the next decade in order to make substantial progress toward these goals?
A: The first thing I wanted to say is that it’s great that they have set ambitious goals. I’m from Singapore. In our culture, if you want to score an A, you need to aim for an A+. Without ambitious goals, we cannot get to where we need to be.
There are four technical challenges that are particularly important. The first is recycling and circularity. Lithium-ion batteries contain elements like copper, nickel, and cobalt that take a lot of energy to extract from the earth’s crust. Countries that manufacture batteries need to figure out how to recycle and re-use them—and then implement the solutions.
The second challenge: we must invent and deploy non-lithium battery chemistries in the next decade. Lithium will become a scarce commodity, and the world has to prepare for that. Batteries can be made with many other elements like sodium, zinc, and calcium. We need breakthroughs to enable large-scale production.
The third is to think beyond traditional battery concepts of converting chemical energy to electrons. As we have seen in countries with more than 50% renewables, we need long-duration energy storage. While lithium-ion batteries can provide storage that lasts 4 to 8 hours, we need storage that lasts days or even weeks to operate a high-renewables grid. An example of a new storage concept under development is liquid hydrogen carriers. These can potentially revolutionize long-duration storage.
The fourth technical challenge is oxygen. Many scientists dream about using the oxygen in the air to make electrons. It’s the ultimate crown jewel for energy storage. We should try to use light elements like oxygen because they can lead to storage with higher energy density. They’re also more reactive so they can store and convert energy more efficiently. As the Earth’s population continues to grow, we need to find a way to make oxygen work in order to make energy access more inclusive.
“The U.S. needs to expand efforts into what I call ‘ecosystem building.’ This requires building strong fundamental battery chemistry science beyond lithium, innovating in sustainable battery production, and finding new ways to discover and design storage materials that can enable safe, sustainable batteries at gigawatt scale.” — Shirley Meng, ACCESS Chief Scientist
Q: What are your priorities as chief scientist?
A: I plan to dedicate more than half of my time to bringing together scientists from across the nation to ACCESS to collaborate on energy storage research. I will be looking for new ways to make sure that our fundamental science activities lead to impactful outcomes for industry and society-at-large.
ACCESS is already doing this and has forged many successful industry partnerships, so I will be building upon a strong foundation. I see two particular types of partnerships where Argonne plays a critical role. One is with small startups with brilliant ideas but limited resources. ACCESS can provide the facilities, people, and other resources for them to advance their ideas. The second is providing large, well-established companies with cutting-edge tools—such as AI technologies and the Advanced Photon Source—to support their large-scale R&D. I view education as critical to strong private sector partnerships. I will be looking for ways to leverage training opportunities at Argonne so that both university and industry can benefit from our laboratories and experts.
I am also determined to continue my research on materials discovery and design for energy storage and conversion. I am passionate about a tool known as cryogenic transmission electron microscopy that involves imaging materials kept at extremely cold temperatures—with very fast, accurate detection. It is widely used in biomedical research. In 2016, I was one of the first battery scientists to use the tool to study reactive materials in batteries, and I’ve continued to use it in many research projects. At Argonne, I hope to build dream microscopes to continue this area of research to unravel secrets in energy materials.
Q: ACCESS brings together interdisciplinary teams from across Argonne to address the most complex energy storage problems. How do you plan to build on these activities?
A: From my university experience, I’ve learned that without additional resources, interdisciplinary research is an empty slogan. At the Sustainable Power and Energy Center, our approach was to reward scientists for taking the extra steps to break disciplinary barriers and pursue interdisciplinary research. At ACCESS, I will be thinking about new ways to enlarge the resources available for interdisciplinary work. And I plan to make a very clear pitch to Argonne’s researchers about how interdisciplinary activities can help them attract more resources and advance their careers.
I’ll give an example of interdisciplinary resources. The National Science Foundation funds Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers at institutions with interdisciplinary research groups that address fundamental materials science. These are among the most prestigious materials research centers and receive substantial funding. I believe that the interdisciplinary teams we built at UCSD were the reason why it succeeded for the first time last year in securing funding to launch one of these centers.
Q: What most excites you about your new role as chief scientist?
A: The most brilliant inventions in battery research come from the United States, yet certain countries in Asia dominate battery manufacturing today. The United States needs to expand efforts into what I call “ecosystem building”—making sure that there’s a healthy battery industry. This requires building strong fundamental battery chemistry science beyond lithium, innovating in sustainable battery production, and finding new ways to discover and design storage materials that can enable safe, sustainable batteries at gigawatt scale. We need scientific breakthroughs in the next five years to build strong momentum behind the clean energy transition. I’m excited to help with these efforts.
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.