How Scientists, Car Companies, And The Military Are Creating The Smartest…

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How Scientists, Car Companies, And The Military Are The Smartest Energy Solution On The

By Jeff Spross May 1, 2014 at pm Updated: May 1, 2014 at 3:41 pm

How Car Companies, And The Military Are Creating The Energy Solution On The Market

Back in February, Tesla sent a shock wave the energy technology world it announced plans to build the biggest battery factory.

The scale of the proposed “gigafactory ” is “[Tesla’s] goal by 2020 is to be 500,000 cars — 500,000 packs — out of that gigafactory,” Steve LeVine, a journalist for who’s writing a book on and their potential to transform as we know it. If Tesla hits target, it would literally global production of lithium-ion

For anyone concerned about change, this is big news. every vehicle electric reduce carbon emissions by cars off a pure oil diet and an electricity mix of coal, natural and some renewables. But we need to that electricity mix fully clean energy as well — and do it — to avoid the worst impacts of change.

That will dealing with the intermittency of energy sources like and solar. Electricity is relatively in that we don’t make it we use it — and if we don’t use it right when made, we lose it. So fossil like coal and natural gas an advantage in that we control we burn them. But the sun shines and the blows where and when will, limiting renewables to a energy source at best. To that, we need to be able to renewable electricity when made, and then release it we need it.

And that means Lots and lots of batteries.

The Game

Tesla CEO Elon by the Model S.

CREDIT: AP Photo / Sakuma

But Tesla’s gigafactory reveals the big hurdle still in the way of batteries: cost. As the size of a increases, the number of units of it can produce — batteries in this — goes up faster than the costs of the equipment and staff and else that makes the run. A bigger factory and production will bring the per unit down, allowing to cut the prices it charges the consumer.

In words, Tesla hasn’t hit on a solution to batteries’ costs. just trying to mitigate costs through brute force.

This wasn’t many were expecting in The stimulus bill pumped of millions of dollars into energy research at United tech firms, and into like Argonne National and the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E The aim was to finally secure the breakthrough would make battery ubiquitous in the energy economy, “to the next generation of fuel-efficient and trucks powered by the next of battery technologies all made here in the U.S. of A.,” as Obama put it. LeVine himself his book in 2011, “pretty only to see the expected breakthroughs and several major battery go bankrupt.

“I was fooled, as I think a lot of us were, by the era we up in,” LeVine mused. about Apollo and Kennedy the ten year goal, and we know the Manhattan Project, and we also Silicon Valley on our brain and the and all that. So we think all you need to do is a leader declare great and then you throw money at it, and in ten you’ll have it.”

“It out those examples are aberrations. And the hard things are really

Ever since Alessandro built the very first around 1800, the basic behind making batteries changed. We’re still a chemical reaction to drive between two oppositely charged which in turn drives the of electricity. But the materials themselves changing as we try out new battery “recipes.” had zinc-copper; the last hundred saw lead-acid batteries; more there was nickel-metal hydride, is in the Toyota Prius and most and finally we hit on lithium-ion, which is powers everything from our our smartphones, and our cordless power to Tesla’s Model S and General Chevy Volt.

When it to batteries these days, the is a better rate of improvement in more stability and more storage for less cost. recipe has delivered a better and the lithium-ion batteries Tesla’s would produce are the best “Since 1991, you’ve able to increase the amount of you can put in that [lithium-ion battery] five percent a year,” Jeff Chamberlain, the Deputy of Development and Demonstration for the Joint for Energy Storage Research at National Labs. “And at the time reduce the costs by seven percent per year. And really good.”

The car companies are that battery scientists fail for the next three

But it’s not enough. Chamberlain it to microchips, which have doubling their performance 18 months. And not through any change in — they’re still just of silicon conducting electricity — but perpetual improvements in design and manufacturing methodology. Not even batteries have gotten close, and they’ve been for two decades.

“If you look at the car companies, gas companies, oil companies, their released forecasts for 30 or 40 years the road show that cars will still have one percent of the car market,” said. “They’re betting — really a sounding — that scientists will fail for the three decades. Which is

Innovating More Efficient

For the moment, that leaves in the automobile industry trying to get the they can out of existing technology.

own efforts don’t end with the Smaller batteries are more so instead of one big battery Tesla uses a pack of a few thousand ones, all just a little than your average AA They’re linked together by “management system ,” which the batteries to get the charge the car’s motor needs, when it it, and in the safest and most efficient

The battery pack in a Tesla S.


No one really how much the battery packs and Tesla obviously isn’t But Chamberlain estimated it’s a portion of the car’s $69,900 tag. (Before sales tax credits. etc.) According to Tesla CEO Elon Musk the gigafactory’s scaled up production cut the cost of the battery packs by 30 which could reduce the cost of the Model S considerably.

General Motors has decided the way around batteries’ current is to keep an internal combustion as a back-up. The Chevrolet Volt’s battery has only a 40-mile (versus the 180 to 260-mile range on the S) but if the driver runs the battery the gasoline engine kicks in to generating power for the electric GM went with such a range because, after through a wealth of Department of studies on electric vehicle they found that 78 of Americans put in a round-trip commute to and work of 40 miles or less per “If we can get almost 80 percent of Americans off of gas day during their commute, the target,” said Britta a former member of GM’s and development team, who now heads infrastructure development. “Just emissions from the tail of vehicles but not constrain consumers.”

The also showed drivers actually clocking just as if not more, all-electric miles in the as they were in other electric vehicles. The all-electric according to Gross, are nervous running their battery past even half given the uncertainty of finding to recharge. “Volt drivers are about not trying to dip into the Gross explained, but thanks to the back-up “they’re comfortable all of the battery capacity.”

A Chevrolet model 2011. The orange cord plugs into a 3-prong, 120-volt socket.


That logic GM to use a smaller battery, which a much cheaper battery, gets the Volt to just $34,000. Throw in the federal tax and it’s within spitting of the Toyota Camry — the most four-door passenger car in 2013.

The Option

When it comes to the grid, batteries face the challenge as on the car market: reduce and improve energy storage and But there’s no real equivalent on the grid, and the applications multiply

To get an idea of what the future of might look like, we can turn to the military. Back in or 2006, the military suddenly it had a big problem with how it was powering its in Iraq and Afghanistan. “You have one 60-kilowatt generator up to something that needed 10 explained Michael Wu, the Energy Director for the Truman National Project #038; Center for Policy. “So you were wasting an amount of fuel because you linking together generators.”

Beyond that, the generators extensive battlefield supply to get fuel to the bases, and that put at risk. “We lost a lot of lives in and Afghanistan trying to protect convoys,” Wu said. So the military replacing those generators by in solar in a big way — solar tents and blankets and tactical solar and other forms of easily-deployable power. Combine that batteries, and warzone bases eventually generate all the power need on-site, without the for fuel convoys.

Beyond soldiers and marines on missions carry up to 18 different types of to power their laptops, equipment, and other electronics. biggest tactical advantage the enemy is that we have command and control,” Wu said, is only possible through our equipment.” But those batteries the soldiers down, so the Defense streamlined it all into one integrated system. The military also a wearable vest — the Marine Patrolling System — that both solar panels and an battery that connects to via USB technology. It even has a water system.

State-side military “are directly supporting the war in operations around the world they’ve never done Wu added, pointing to the aerial that provide soldiers in with reconnaissance and intelligence, and are almost all piloted remotely the states. “But right now the is dependent on the civilian grid for 99 of its electricity requirements,” said Wu. that civilian grid is and nearly a century old. In in 2012 alone, our military had 87 power outages of eight or more. And that’s unacceptable.”

Two deploy a portable Power Kit, which includes batteries and a solar-powered blanket.

Petty Officer 2nd Class D. Williams / U.S. Navy

instability is driving a domestic towards renewable energy for the as well. Some of it is coming wind power on military-owned but most, again, is solar — aimed at making bases’ production entirely self-sufficient. At the Corps Air Station in Miramar, for instance, Primus Power is modular batteries that can be together, reminiscent of Tesla’s pack, to provide storage for the solar array.

Vehicles on bases are also going They tend to stick to low and to run regular routes, ideal for battery-powered motors, and they to the same spot each which makes charging The military has also started the batteries in those vehicles as storage when they’re in, smoothing out changes in electricity on the bases, and for the larger civilian grid. They’re turning to — computer systems that supply, demand, and storage of while keeping track of battery capacity — to manage electric vehicle fleets and electricity needs more

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This all relates back to the world in two ways. First, the is a reliable customer with a lot of income that can give sector start-ups the support to their technologies and services to scale. “Companies like Power are benefiting from to prove their technology and down their price, so they become really to the civilian sector,” Wu explained.

all of the ways the military is using can be mirrored in the civilian world. projects are experimenting with for homes and businesses to manage own electricity use and storage, and to bring in vehicles as additional battery capacity when they’re in at the garage or the parking lot. and shipping companies in cities are to electric vehicle fleets for the reasons as the military: regular and routes, low speeds in urban and regular returns to the same site. Companies like are already providing home and office buildings with to hook up their solar to Tesla-built batteries. “When I’m at and I can collect sun energy at my home,” asked, “if I’m not using it at my home — does it go? Wouldn’t it be great if I store that energy in a cheap battery in my garage, so I get home and the sun’s down, I sunlight right there in the

Gross even mentioned GM has been talking to utilities repurposing used batteries for storage. “Some of these are really faced with problems where they just put big rooms full of at the base of a wind turbine or in the of Manhattan,” she said. “So that be a case where a lithium-ion coming off a vehicle could be a cost equation for them.”

The goal is a decentralized network of overlapping battery storage; large and small; at homes, skyscrapers, and utilities; throughout the electrical grid. “What aiming at,” said “is transforming the grid so there’s buffer zone of [stored]

Helping The Revolution Along

we’re aiming at is transforming the so there’s this buffer of [stored] electricity.

Americans’ for electricity goes up and down all the sometimes predictably, and sometimes and dramatically. That requires “baseload” power — the minimum of electricity that always to be available on the grid — plus and high frequency responses utilities. Right now, basically all done with gas turbines and coal burners run on computer algorithms to anticipate Providing baseload power and the demand changes are services need to step up to provide.

also the inevitable threat of On the dramatic end, Hurricane left hospitals and multi-family in New York City without for days — usually in the city’s areas. There are everyday in the United States, as well, they’re rare enough buying batteries as backup a cost-effective choice for most But in other up-and-coming countries India and China, where the are older and blackouts are more it’s not unusual to see a middle family with a stack of in their garage. And of course, the need to smooth out the intermittency and of wind and solar with storage.

But the ugly truth is that the energy-inefficient way we handle all those now is still usually cheaper, in raw terms, than investing in and the clean and coherent approach to they can provide. There are we can change in the policy environment to more government-funded research, for Reforming regulation of the grid help us get closer to an actual in electricity, with individuals . with utilities, making and selling their own power. a national cap-and-trade system or a tax would build the future of climate change into the of fossil fuels. That make renewables — and, in batteries — more economically

As for electric cars, Gross out that the overwhelming majority of people spend charging cars is at their homes at or at their work parking during the day. The Volt can be fully recharged by plugging a standard 120-volt, 3-pronged socket for 10 hours. So we need new building codes, and infrastructure to sure every American has a with a dedicated circuit in their home garage, in office parking space, or in apartment parking lot.

The Of Batteries

What we need to be for the automotive industry and the grid is another four or five-fold

In the end, technology is the key. batteries today hold six times more energy for a structure of mass, compared to 100 years ago,” Chamberlain “But what we need to be for the automotive industry and the grid is another four or five-fold

First, we need better out of the battery “recipes” we already Unlike a microchip, which down to electrons moving metal, a battery works an actual chemical reaction. it recharges, that reaction is To be worth it to the consumer, that has to be able to cycle through reactions thousands of times That comes with over time, the physical of the materials in the battery changes. warp and expand and shift, side reactions occur, degrades, and eventually the battery

“To really invent the perfect you want to understand every aspect of that chemical Chamberlain explained. “So now, in the decade or so, we actually have the to do it. We have supercomputers and we have sources and electron microscopy, we can actually watch materials all the way to atoms and see what is happening.”

That means building new from the very bottom up, nanotechnology. One example is a battery’s which sits between the — the two oppositely charged ends of the — and facilitates the movement of the ions them. Electrolytes are typically a chemical, but if they can be changed to a solid, the life and stability of batteries would rise

Another example is new materials for the themselves. We use carbon now, but if we move to silicon, lithium-ion could store much energy. Unfortunately, silicon reacts to lithium by expanding 300 percent, so we need to nano-engineer a structure that can take of repeated expansions and contractions. using graphene, which is a new structure that was discovered in the decade,” Chamberlain said. great about that is incredibly [electrically] conductive and very flexible.”

To really the perfect battery, you want to every single aspect of chemical reaction.

“Lithium-ion at its best will be somewhere two to three times better we are today. All of that stuff is worked on. Not just at Argonne or but literately all around the world. And quite likely we will get Chamberlain said.

Then are technologies that redefine our of what a battery is. Flow for example, have liquids of solids for their electrodes. recharged by switching out the tanks, and how energy they store is purely by the tanks’ size. what Primus Power is at Miramar.) Or pumped hydro in which the rechargeable battery is two huge reservoirs of water at heights, with pipes and generators in between. The projects are cost-effective as long as the landscape provides the downhill drop for the so they’re limited by geography. But hold the potential for massive energy storage.

But getting all the way to times better will combining those new nano-engineering with all new recipes that or even move beyond the umbrella. Things like lithium-sulfur, or sodium-sulfur batteries for and cars and even utilities.

problem is the physics and chemistry those reactions is significantly difficult to understand and control,” explained. “But they very clearly get us to four or times from where we are

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