Scientific collaboration seeks ultimate battery
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Venkat Srinivasan, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory staff scientist and director of batteries, drives a nonelectric, non-hybrid Subaru.
Within the next decade, he expects advancements made at the Berkeley lab in transportation technology will mean his son -- born last year and the reason his second car is not a Prius, like his wife's -- will not face a similar compromise.
"We needed a back seat, with liberal space for grandparents," the 40-year-old Pleasanton resident said. "The hybrids have no trunk space for a stroller and Tesla's are too expensive."
Even if he could afford Tesla's $70,000 electric car, his daily 70-mile commute would mean recharging every 300 miles.
Despite the substantial strides in lithium-ion technology since 1991 (the batteries' energy density has quadrupled), the batteries of electric and hybrid cars average 150 watt-hours per kilogram. Gasoline destroys batteries' numbers with 12,000 watt-hours.
Srinivasan said jump-starting battery and energy storage research requires a major push in three categories: Developing new materials, streamlining lab-to marketplace processes, and preventing off-shoring of jobs with incentives to quickly reach automation and reduce labor costs.
Two initiatives have Srinivasan believing he and his colleagues are poised to soon eclipse the area's "Silicon Valley" moniker with "Battery Bay."
LBNL is one of five universities and four private firms selected in 2012 by the federal Department of Energy for its Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), led by Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago.
The funding award of up to $120 million establishes LBNL's Batteries and Energy Storage Hub.
Srinivasan said the hub is charged with making new materials and is using a genomic approach. This means breaking down existing materials to their smallest, "nano" states, building synthetic elements not found on the periodic table, and crafting millions of computer models -- often including robotics to quickly test new combinations -- instead of using old-fashioned, slow-moving "cook and look" experimentation.
"How do you accelerate innovation?" Srinivasan asks. "JCSER has a goal to make lithium-ion systems provide five times the energy storage at one-fifth the cost within five years. We can't take 10 years to develop new materials and another 10 to bring a product to market."
Ironically, it was slamming on the brakes, during a sabbatical he took in 2008, that led Srinivasan to the second initiative-generating excitement at LBNL. CalCharge, a public-private consortium he launched in 2012, combines startup and established energy technology companies, Bay Area academic institutions (to date including LBNL, San Jose State University), CalCEF (a team of nonprofit organizations supporting clean energy innovations) and government resources.
Srinivasan explains CalCharge's function as a real world bridge; eradicating the disconnect between silo-style research labs and industry partners. "We were theoretical, handing them things based on published papers that didn't work every single time, or cost a fortune," he said. "Currently, you can have a lead acid battery that will deteriorate in three years, or a lithium-ion one that lasts four times longer but is expensive. You can lease batteries and offer smart financing, but people like me want to find the ultimate battery that lasts forever."
Bringing green energy entrepreneurs and engineers together -- CalCharge members get unparalleled access to LBNL -- is directing the lab scientists' next steps.
For transportation batteries, first priorities are finding new materials; eliminating the slower parts of making a battery; improving energy density; and extrapolating lessons learned from the behavior of synthetic materials (like those in cell phones).
To solve problems related to the energy grid, Srinivasan said improved solar and wind capture and storage is vital, as is continuing development of "flow" and liquid metal batteries (involving a too-heavy-for-a-car cell and tank model in which dissolved chemicals and melted metals, respectively, create the energy).
SJSU has announced a College of Engineering extended studies program that will offer certificate programs or a full master's of science degree in engineering with an emphasis in battery technology.
Srinivasan said all the activity proves the Bay Area is ideal for battery breakthroughs.
"We understand the risk of trying new things and failing," he said. "Here, people are moving from sector to sector and CalCharge will bring R&D and the energy storage startup communities side-by-side. After failing a few times, we will succeed. To reach a breakthrough, you only need a few to succeed."