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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Ask a Scientist: Ask a battery scientist

Jeff Chamberlain dishes on the next generation of batteries, why new inventions take so long to get to market, and clean room suits for dogs (they exist!).

Jeff Chamberlain, head of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS) and external integration officer of the Joint Center for Energy Storage (JCESR) at Argonne, took to Reddit to answer questions from users on that site’s Ask Me Anything” feature.

This article was originally published in the spring 2016 issue of Argonne Now, the laboratory’s science magazine.

From user TrueBlueShteve: Is the next gen going to be lithium-ion, or something else?

We scientists have been debating this question for many years. I personally realized a couple years ago the question itself is flawed in its implied assumption that there will be a single winner amongst the possible technologies.

The answer to your question is yes and no. Next gen will be lithium-ion, and next gen will be other than lithium-ion. Depending on the application.

Lithium-ion is going to improve at least 2x (maybe 2.5 or 3x) in performance, and decrease in cost by 50% or 60% in the coming years. As such, it’s going to be around as a successful technology for a long, long time. Remember that lead-acid has been around for over a hundred years, improving all the time. It’s actually a great technology. Same thing will happen with lithium-ion. And then new technologies like those we are working on in JCESR will also emerge and be adopted, because they will improve in performance beyond the theoretical limits of Li-ion.

Also, note that lithium-ion is not like alkaline or nickel-metal-hydride batteries. In the latter two cases, the chemistry set, so to speak, is fairly constant. Lithium-ion, on the other hand, can be changed significantly and still fall under the umbrella name lithium-ion.” Cathode materials can be changed from cobalt oxide to iron phosphate, and the anode can change from carbon to titanium dioxide, and it’s still called lithium-ion, because that is the ion that shuttles a charge back and forth. So, one battery can be used for laptops, and the other for power tools. Point is, lithium-ion has room to evolve substantially in the near future.

Inthenameofscience: About how long does it usually take to go from mulling over an idea to research, experimentation, and eventually production?

It takes a long, long time. Most folks outside of science and engineering don’t have a good feel for this, so I am glad you asked. For reference, I suggest reading The Idea Factory, by Gertner, about Bell Labs.

To go from an idea for something physically new, to implementation commercially, it usually takes a low number of decades. The Manhattan Project and the Apollo Missions are exceptions, but in my view there are two variables: time and effort (effort = money + person-years). In these cases, the effort variable was WAY larger in the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Missions than for typical science and technology projects.

The reason we fool ourselves into thinking it only takes a short time is because of the rapid evolution of technology once the basis is there. An example is the advance in personal computing (up to and including smart phones) through the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. But it took decades to understand and perfect the microchip before this series of rapid advances. (Remember, all integrated circuits are silicon, so advances have been incrementally based on this one material.)

In batteries, we are trying to go to a completely different set of materials. We incorporate industry in our research to try to compress this long time scale.

hwalsh01: Do you have any research/designs working toward large grid-level storage?

Yes. The problem of energy storage for vehicles is tangible to the average person, because the average person uses a cell phone and a laptop, and gets the importance of portable energy storage. (E.g., Ahhhhh!!! My phone charge is 1%!!) Less obviously tangible is the grid problem. As the grids around the world adopt more and more renewables (wind and solar), we need to store the energy produced by them.

Here’s why: electricity is an on-demand production cycle for the consumer. The power knob in a coal-fired power plant gets turned up for every light switch turned on, basically. As it is produced, electricity is consumed. Well, we can’t turn up the wind or the sun as needed. Not yet, anyway!

So, as the percentage of electricity production goes up from renewables, we need to find a way to take electricity being produced when we don’t need it and store it. It is one of the two main missions of our JCESR research to identify through scientific research how to develop a battery from the materials up that can efficiently store energy from the grid. For an overview see here: www​.jcesr​.org.

David_D_Montes: I understand that after JCESR became the U.S.‘s battery hub, President Obama visited Argonne to survey the energy storage research facilities and talk with staff. Did you meet him?

Yes, President Obama visited Argonne in March 2013. He wanted to learn about our battery work, as well as our work in advanced vehicles in general. The visit was crazy—the day before the visit I watched from my office as three Marine Force helicopters landed in the parking lot of my building for practice. A favorite story was the Secret Service wanted to bring a bomb-sniffing dog into the clean room…Turns out there is such a thing as a clean room suit for dogs. Why?? Day of his visit was great. His speech was inspiring—he was preaching to the choir about the importance of science! I sat in the second row, and shook his hand; others in the battery team actually toured him through our facility.

Entries and questions have been lightly edited for length.