DOWNERS GROVE TOWNSHIP, Ill. -- With current battery systems reaching their performance limits, researchers are scrutinizing every component of lithium-ion cells in order to develop energy storage mechanisms that can make electric vehicles better competitors to fossil-fueled engines.
Lithium-ion systems have made tremendous strides since they were invented in the 1970s. The cells have matured beyond expensive, fire-prone energy systems, becoming the go-to chemistry to power new mobile devices and electric vehicles. Still, prices need to drop further and the batteries themselves need be more durable to drive electric cars into more driveways and garages.
Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago are now tackling this problem, from designing batteries by the molecule in computers to postmortem battery analyses. In the process, the facility hopes to create innovations that will drive the industry, giving American manufacturers an edge over other countries as these energy storage systems find their way under the hood.
Khalil Amine, senior fellow scientist and manager for the Advanced Lithium Battery Program at Argonne, noted that historically, the United States led the world in energy storage research, but other countries like South Korea, Japan and China were better at commercializing these technologies.
But with high gasoline prices and increased global competition, the U.S. government has taken a renewed interest in developing and producing next-generation batteries within its borders. "Energy storage now is very strategic, not only for Argonne, but for the country," Amine said. "Whoever develops the technology will become the Saudi Arabia of batteries, so obviously it's very critical to get the technologies."
Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Argonne received $8.8 million to build new labs to design battery components, test them, scale up their production, build prototypes, run them through tests and analyze them.
The cheaper, more powerful battery starts with molecules
Though some other countries have more manpower devoted to researching energy storage, Amine said that Argonne has its own advantages. "Here, we use our advanced supercomputer to design molecules for validation," he said, allowing engineers to create suitable molecules from the ground up rather than testing various materials to see what sticks. "It's a very powerful tool that companies do not have."
Once researchers find a candidate molecule for a battery component, they produce it in small amounts to see if it works as predicted, usually in 100- to 500-gram batches. However, many promising materials languished in the past, failing to make the jump from the test tube to the assembly line and attract interest from industry.
"Great research is being done, great materials are being developed, but not a lot of them are making it out of the lab," explained Gregory Krumdick, a researcher at Argonne. "When you're scaling up technologies, what works at the bench will not work at the industrial scale."
To bridge this "Valley of Death," Argonne is building the Materials Engineering Research Facility. The laboratory takes processes that produce grams of compounds used in electrolytes, cathodes and anodes, and ramps up the output by an order of magnitude or more. Krumdick is the principal systems engineer at this scale-up facility.
Scientists tend to craft their chemicals like artisans, using specialized tools and forming the products in tiny quantities. This gives them precise control over their work and lets them tweak the process, validating their results through experiments and computer models. The material is often sufficient for a button cell like the ones that power wristwatches, but to get manufacturers really interested, you have to make enough for large batteries while using cheaper, off-the-self hardware.