Beyond lithium Ion batteries

How do you develop the replacement for the current lithium ion batteries
08 April 2014

Interview with 

George Crabtree and Jeff Chamberlain, from Argonne National Laboratory


Chris - When I was in Chicago recently, I met up with a group at Argonne National Laboratory who are spending 100 million dollars over the next 5 years to make batteries that they say should be - if they had the money, 5 times better than the present generation. George Crabtree and Jeff Chamberlain are leading the project.

George - We need new batteries for the transformation of the two of the most important energy sectors: transportation and the electricity group. Transportation is obvious. It's to electric cars, replace gasoline engines. In the case of the grid, it's to enable renewable wind and solar energy to be deployed at a high level, say, 20 or 30%. These are variable sources and you need a backup for them.

Chris - Jeff, what's wrong with the batteries we have at the moment to fulfil both of those tasks that George has outlined?

Jeff - So, the batteries we have at a moment, lithium ion are the best batteries out there for transportation and actually, for the grid. However, we need batteries that are significantly smaller, lighter, less expensive, recyclable, using Earth-abundant materials. So, we need to advance the technology, not just beyond where we are today with lithium ion, but even if you go as far as you can go with lithium ion, it won't meet the challenges that George has outlined.

Chris - Pretty high aspirations. Can you achieve this?

George - We're looking to be transformative and less than say, 5 times the performance at 1/5 the cost will not be transformative. The second answer is that it's well within what science will allow. So, if you take the back of an envelope and a pencil and ask, "What's the best I could do?" It's a factor of 10 and technology in the energy sector typically delivers half as a theoretical potential and that's true of lithium ion batteries for example.

Chris - So, what approach are you taking Jeff, to try to explore how to build these better batteries?

Jeff - It's a materials challenge, developing new active materials down to the nano or meso scale as well as the engineering challenge of how to put those materials into a chemical system that functions as a battery. So, our approach is to couple those two approaches in a highly interactive way so that while the science is occurring to discover and develop new materials, we're actually putting them in cells and connecting our cells directly with industrial partners to try to expedite that entire innovation timeline.

Chris - So George, how did you go about developing a new battery? Is it literary loads of wet chemistry you're fiddling with chemicals in the laboratory and seeing if they work together or is there a strong theoretical arm to it?

George - So, the typical way the R&D community operates now is, "I would like to have a better cathode. Give me one. I'll try it. If it works, I'll use it. If it doesn't work, I'll throw it away and try something else." But they will not ask the question, "Why did it fail?" or "Why did it work?" And that's the question that we want to ask. So, we're very different from typical battery R&D in this sense. We'd like to understand the phenomena and the materials of energy storage at the atomic and molecular level. And we feel that once we have that fundamental basic understanding, we'll be able to design rather than discover by chance. But actually, design the materials and the phenomena that we want in our next generation batteries.

Chris - It's quite interesting that you're taking that fundamental, "We want to understand" approach and then asking, how do we use that to inform the development rather than just going hell for leather saying, "I need a better battery. Let's just try lots of things."

George - Well, the typical community today actually does everything by serendipity. "I found something. It works. I'm finished." We want to take that to the next level and our feeling is that as we were saying earlier, that beyond lithium ion space is rich with opportunities. So, once you understand why phenomena work and how the materials operate, you can then design more than one solution to the battery challenge. There may be two or three solutions that are equally, let's say, appealing but for various different applications.

Chris - We're returning to the question which was how are you actually going about it, to what extent is it theoretical and driven on the computer and to what extent are you actually getting your hands dirty with different mixtures of chemicals?

George - So, on the very basic side of the spectrum of research that's performed in the centre, we do combine computation and experiment. We've created, actually launched in a beta test format inside the centre, something we call 'the electrolyte genome'. The idea is to take a somewhat genomic approach to developing a new chapter in the book of knowledge if you want to think of it that way, and how electrolytes function. We do that using supercomputers that launch Brooklyn National Lab and here at Argonne National Laboratory. So, in a sense, we can explore with our deep understanding of the quantum chemistry. We're going to explore new molecules computationally. We couple that with experiments done all the way from vacuum phase, truly looking at individual molecules and a single crystal of metal, all the way to putting it inside of cells and monitoring its performance and testing, real time, the degradation or the function of those materials as we build them. So, the idea here is again, to combine the deep science with the engineering, but coupling that in a very hard way with a new way to compute and look for in a database, new discovery of new materials rather than a more hunt and peck method of developing materials in the lab.

Chris - That must save an enormous amount of effort because you can try things in the computer which if they're going to draw a blank there saves you than having to go and discover that by making the system in a real world.

George - That's the whole idea that will save an enormous amount of effort by using the computer to look at thousands or tens of thousands of things that might take decades to do experimentally.

Chris - George Crabtree and Jeff Chamberlain. They're both from Argonne National Laboratory.


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