The past few months have been difficult for many in the advanced battery industry. A discouraging analysis by EPRI as to the relative costs and benefits of grid storage, slow sales of the Chevy Volt and the Nissan LEAF, earnings disappointments at several advanced battery companies and the possible break-up of one of the industry’s potential leading players, JCI-Saft Power Systems, cannot help but to call into question the very future of the advanced battery industry. The ability to store electrical energy in an efficient and light weight form has the promise to solve many critical social problems. But the world does not always beat a path to the better mousetrap. The last few months have led me to wonder whether we might not be betting on the wrong technology.
This week, in as much a test of faith as a search for information, I attended the “Beyond Lithium Ion” conference at Northwest Pacific National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. The conference discussed the status of research into the battery technologies that are expected eventually to replace lithium-ion chemistries in traction and grid-connected stationary batteries, with a focus on lithium-air and lithium-sulfur systems. I attended for the purpose of discovering how long we will have to wait for the technologies that may one day permit advanced batteries to fulfill their social potential.
I am happy to report that I came away inspired, but not in the way I had hoped. The truth, as near as I can tell it (I suspect I was the only non-scientist at the conference), is that mass-market commercial systems employing lithium-air and lithium-sulfur technology are still years away. There are fundamental scientific problems in both technologies that need to be solved. There is even the possibility of a “show stopper”--a problem in the technologies that might ultimately make them unusable in commercial applications or, more likely, unable to improve significantly on the performance of existing lithium-ion systems. More basic research is needed on both technologies before these systems can be moved into practical, mass market applications.
But what might have been a discouraging trip to Eastern Washington turned out to be the opposite. The encouragement, however, came not from the technology, but from the minds of the people working on it. I knew by reputation such leaders in advanced battery research as Winfried Wilke, Esther Takeuchi, Yet-Ming Chaing, K. M. Abraham, Peter Bruce, Khalil Amine and others. But listening to them speak and explain how they were approaching the complex technological problems they face inspired tremendous confidence. Yet-Ming Chaing’s description of the concept behind his new company, 24M Technologies, was a case in point. I have no idea whether Prof. Chaing’s lithium-ion flow battery concept will actually work, but I am absolutely convinced that the mind that conceived that novel device will go on to do great things.
My take away from the conference is simply this: Over the past several years advanced electrochemical energy storage has captured the imagination, not just of the public, but of much of the scientific community as well. The problems in advanced battery science are real and in some respects daunting. But the best minds we have are now on the problem. A bet on advanced batteries is less a bet on a technology than a bet on human ingenuity itself. I’ll take that bet.