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Developing new batteries for cars, houses, devices and the grid -

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Robyn Williams: Well, some greenish technology is taking a while indeed to be realised. We shall look at wave power next week. And batteries are a slow growth too. Here is the way new batteries research was summed up by the experts at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science 2015 meeting) in San Jose.

Venkat Srinivasan: Thank you. So my name is Venkat Srinivasan, I'm a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley, but I also head a department. But my own research is on batteries, and I've been doing battery development for the last 15 years, trying to develop the next generation batteries for electric vehicles and for grid applications.

I took a sabbatical from Lawrence Berkeley maybe six years ago, went to work at a start-up company, and what I started recognising was that it's a very slow process to go from a lab innovation to something that actually sits in the Chevy Volt or the Tesla Roadster. Sometimes it can take more than 10 years to do that. And I started digging more and more into why something like that is happening, and what became very clear was that there is no connection between the research that happens at the universities and national labs and the industries that are building the batteries that go into cars and cell phones and ultimately to the grid.

And what we started thinking about is how do you get that connectivity in place where this connection between the research that is happening and the industries that are making them get very close and strong…because our feeling was that if you can make it very close then you can get the acceleration of innovation.

So, just as an example, everybody talks about Moore's law and semiconductors, so that's doubling of, say, the speed of a semiconductor device every 18 months. The Moore's law for batteries is 5% improvement in energy density every year, maybe 6% depending on how it goes. Sometimes it can be faster. So the question we've been asking ourselves is what is the best way to very quickly move things from lab to market? And our feeling is that if we can think about a way to do that we can also along the way start generating energy storage companies in the United States that can actually make batteries in the US. So today we don't make any batteries in the United States, we do it all overseas. If we can think hard about how do you get the next generation of battery chemistries and how do you ultimately get to the point where those next generation battery chemistries are going to have a big impact on the vehicle space or the grid space, and we think that we have a roadmap for trying to get there where we can ultimately have jobs in the United States.

Yi Cui: Hi, I'm Yi Cui, I'm a faculty member at Stanford University and also at SLAC National Lab. So since I joined the faculty about 10 years ago at Stanford I started to look into batteries problem. Everybody know you want to have a car which can run very long distance and you want to have batteries very cheap that can connect with a solar cell and a wind farm, electricity grid you can store energy, when the power goes off, so you can use it and you can also help integration of those renewable technologies.

So for the past 10 years what we have been doing is trying to answer these questions; can you make the batteries store more energy, three times more, four times more, or even more, what's the limit? What are the problems you have to solve? And also how do you make the batteries very, very safe, how do you make the battery run instead of 500 cycles in your cellphone, can you go 5,000, 50,000 cycles? So this really links back to the fundamental science.

In the most important thing in this is the materials. In order to store more energy you need to use new materials. The existing materials is still important to keep the applications strong, but you ask what's next. New materials are important. For example, my group has been working on silicon as materials to replace carbon in the lithium ion battery. Silicon stores 10 times more charges, but it has a lot of problems, volume expansion, mechanical breaking.

But for the past six, seven years also we have learnt tremendously. We discovered a lot of new things. We actually were able to enable silicon now become real in real batteries. One example is a new smart phone, now on the market. This one uses the silicon anode inside, made by Amprius. Amprius is a company I founded about six, seven years ago. This one has the highest energy density in the world. So this one you charge it once, you use it for five days. So technology like this, there's many things that need to add together to enable three 'eggs' or more.

One last thing is about how do you commercialise the technology? Venkat mentioned these partnerships, it's very, very important for the people doing research at University and National Lab, knowing what the industry needs. So really bridge that gap.

Linda Nazar: So I'm Linda Nazar from the University of Waterloo. I'm a chemist, sort of an electrical engineer second. And I've been working in batteries for about 20 years. I've worked in lithium ion batteries, but now we are working on what we call beyond lithium ion, and that includes sodium ion, magnesium ion, and lithium sulphur batteries. And as Yi said, it's really all about the materials, In terms of moving batteries to that next generation that will give us increased energy density that is so critical for not only portable devices but especially for large-scale demands that are facing us today. And of course one has to address issues of cost and safety with those advanced materials.

I work with JCESR, which is also…Venkat is also part of this Joint Centre for Energy Storage Research in the USA, and I also work with BASF SE in Germany which is working on commercialising a lot of the materials that we develop. So each of us has our own ways of trying to bring things to market.

Batteries are very complex systems and it requires interfacing many components. The ones at the positive electrode, the little plus sign, the ones at the negative electrode, the silicon that Yi was just talking about, and also the electrolyte which conveys the ions in the cell, and the interfaces between them. And so this complexity of a system has to be addressed at the fundamental level, which is mostly what we do, in order to actually get systems working at the practical level and to move them to that next step. So it requires understanding what doesn't work and then using that knowledge to take it to a new step that works better.

So we've been focusing a lot on lithium sulphur batteries, mostly because of their low cost and environmental benignness, and the fact that they are capable of high energy density, especially once we understand a few of the lingering problems, and we will be taking those into the next steps. They are not I think at a commercialisation point, like silicon, but they will hopefully be in the future as we iron out the rest of the wrinkles.

Michael Toney: So my name is Michael Toney, I'm a staff scientist at the SLAC National Lab. I've been involved in electrochemistry for about 20 years, much of it has been water-based. So my role in this is basically to observe the batteries while they are operating. And so for that we need to develop X-ray cells or batteries that are transparent to X-rays.

I have an example, this is a typical coin cell that one would use in a computer, and we've drilled a little hole in this and there is a window through which X-rays can go through, allowing us actually to observe the battery while it's operating, so watch the action. So my role in this is to help the Lindas and Yis and Venkats of the world to better understand how what they make operates, so to follow the changes both at the atomic scale and, as Linda mentioned, these are very complex materials, so you have to have insight into a range of size scales, going from atomic up to the actual physical size of a battery, to watch how those operate and how they fail. You can develop then better approaches to giving higher capacity and longer lasting batteries.

Venkat Srinivasan: If you want to make an electric car and you want everybody in the world to drive an electric car, the feeling is that batteries have to be at $100 a kilowatt hour, that’s the tipping point. It's a very similar number for the grid. So for example, if you want to put a grid battery in your backyard with solar on your roof, you'd probably have to be even cheaper than $100 a kilowatt hour. Tesla's calculations on how much the Gigafactory is going to decrease the cost, and I think independently people have verified this, would probably be somewhere in the order of two times that target. So ultimately just building a very large factory and vertically integrating is not going to get you the cost numbers where we can have everything happening.

I think people have mentioned, both Linda and Yi mentioned the importance of materials. It's going to come down to finding something that is not based on lithium ion, it may be something a little bit different from the kinds of lithium ion we are using today, and then the kinds of stuff that Tesla is doing and maybe even more than what Tesla is doing before we ultimately get everybody driving an electric car or putting a grid storage battery in your backyard.

Robyn Williams: Some of those at the AAAS on the slowish march to their new batteries we need to underpin the energy revolution, when it happens.

Venkat SrinivasanHead, Energy Storage and Distributed Resources Department
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Berkeley CA USAYi CuiProfessor of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford University
Stanford CA USALinda NazarProfessor of Chemistry
University of Waterloo
Ontario CanadaMichael ToneyStaff Scientist
Slac National Laboratory
Stanford CA USA