The Department of Energy is expanding its partnerships with battery manufacturers to help them redesign and reduce the costs of future batteries.

The companies include Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Panasonic Corp., and the efforts are intended to help the United States compete with other countries amid a growing, global demand for better batteries. The need for more cost-efficient batteries has risen alongside advances in electric vehicles and renewable energy, both of which use the technology.

Much of the DOE research has focused on materials — such as finding new ways to build cheap batteries that can store a lot of energy. The moves, summarized in “Powering the Future,” a report NREL released last week, could help reduce battery reliance upon scarce imported materials by changing battery designs to limit their need for cobalt, graphite and nickel.

The use of silicon — a hard, brittle, crystalline element that is abundant in the United States and throughout the world — “is likely to be the next new big thing,” said Matt Keyser, head of the Electrochemical Energy Storage Group at NREL in Golden, Colo.

Because silicon can store four to five times more electricity than graphite — which is normally used in batteries — the move would reduce the size and weight of battery packs. That could encourage the use of batteries in larger aircraft “because you want to be able to store as much energy in the smallest mass that we can,” Keyser said.

Another promising outcome is that the size of EV batteries would remain the same, but drive ranges would increase by 30 percent to 40 percent.

“We’re not there yet,” said Keyser, noting that the use with lithium produces cracks in the silicon, reducing its shelf life. “Another three to five years, and I think we’ll have that licked.”

Part of this confidence, according to the NREL report, comes from powerful new scanners and computers that help engineers spot and track microscopic changes in experimental batteries.

Another part comes from pending design changes that will allow battery makers to replace specific materials in existing batteries and recycle them — instead of shredding older batteries when their energy storage capacity weakens.

Batteries require a complex cooperation between materials to create and store electricity. They must have a negative electrode called an anode suspended within an electrolyte, a material that is usually a liquid, which channels an electric current to a positive electrode, called a cathode.

The battery team at NREL is focusing on using differing mixtures of lithium in combination with other materials in both the anode and the cathode. In the process, according to Keyser, they are finding ways to reduce cobalt and graphite, both of which are expensive.

Progress comes down to making sure different components within the cell behave well together, said Tony Burrell, another NREL materials expert working on the battery team. He noted in the team's report that the adverse behaviors of some of the newly-introduced materials, such as silicon, are being reduced by protective coatings.

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.