Saturday, December 15, 2012

And here are the lucky winners

I have a new found respect for movie actors (not stage actors, mind you).  Being in front of a camera makes you self conscious in a way being in front of an audience does not.  I can see why Arnold stuck to one liners! 

Anyhooo... last week, I asked via a video blog to send in your questions on all things batteries.  The response was infinitely better than I expected (ponder that sentence for a second and you will see two ways to interpret that). I answered a few of the questions.  

The questions were all very interesting ranging from how we can make a battery that is five time better and five times cheaper to how one can become a battery scientist (start a blog?). 

The clip with the answers is below.  I assume there will be followups.  You can post them in the comments and I will answer them.  It may be during the Holiday break, but I will answer them.  


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Ask and you shall receive... maybe

This is a bit embarrassing.  TWiB is getting updated twice in a week!  I shall try to average things out after this by not posting for a couple of years!  Just kidding folks.  Changes are on the way.  2013 will be a bonanza for all seven of you.

But, let us get back to the task at hand.  My Lab has decided that sitting on planes all day is not really "doing work".  So I have been asked to get some tangible things done for a change.  But first, they would like me to prove that I actually know something about batteries!

So, please watch the video below and ask your questions.  I will be answering a few of them next week in another video blog.  

So ask away.  


Monday, December 3, 2012

What’s all this hubbub about a Hub?

All seven of my fans are aware that I have not been blogging much over the last year and a half.  Part of the reason is that I had, for all practical purposes, relocated to Chicago since the summer of 2011.  I (and many others) spent that one year working on a proposal with Argonne National Lab, which culminated in an announcement that our team had won.  The proposal was for an energy storage (i.e. battery) hub.  This is great news all around.  I have gotten a lot of questions on this, so I decided to write this post to get some information out. 

First, the announcement from DOE is here.

Now comes the FAQ.

There is already so much battery research going on.   What’s the big deal?

Ahh… the million dollar (or the $120M) question!  There is a lot of wonderful battery research already happening (and I’m part of a couple).  But we have very big challenges.  We need batteries that have 5 times the energy density of today’s batteries and have to be 1/5 the cost.  Right now, battery energy densities evolve at just 5% a year!  So the Hub is doing three things that are very different from existing battery efforts:

1.  It puts scientists and engineers, materials researchers and theorists, industry and academia all under “one (virtual) roof.”  This idea is not new (Bell Labs comes to mind and this was essentially Energy Secretary Steve Chu’s vision when he started the Hub proposal process), but it is new to batteries.  And doing this in a deliberate fashion instead of hoping for self-assembly is very important.

2.  It embarks on a new process of innovation.  This is a bit too detailed so I will not elaborate more, but let me just say that what we are planning to do in the Hub is very different from what has been tried in the past.  We hope that this new way of looking at batteries will help us find completely new materials that store energy, beyond what we can dream of today. I’m really excited about this.

3.  It brings together researchers who really understand batteries and puts them in close connection with folks who are experts in, say, materials, but who might be new to batteries.  I would posit that innovation occurs when this connection is made and new thought is brought to an old field.  This, too, is something that can be a game changer. 

But 5 times increase at 1/5 the cost in 5 years?  What are you smoking?

Folks who read my blog posts will know that while I may have one or two flaws (although nothing comes to mind at this moment), naivety isn’t one of them!  We fully appreciate the difficulty of the goals.  But this is what the world needs.  If we want electric cars (EV) everywhere and a way to store energy from a solar panel on our roofs, we need to do this.  That is the bottom line.  Let us not be naive in what the world needs.

So we are dreaming big.  But we are not violating any laws (well… maybe Moore’s Law for batteries, but not any laws that actually matter, like, Faraday’s Law).  These are theoretically possible.  It is however, hard. Very hard.  Hence, the need for a Hub.

And talking about smoking, it’s not all about energy and cost.  Safety will be an important aspect of our studies.  So will battery life and efficiency. 

I don’t care about EVs.  However, I do want my iPhone to last a bit longer. Can we get a Hub for that?

Anyone who really understands batteries will tell you that a good battery is a good battery.  So, on the way to making a better EV battery, we will probably make a better iPhone battery. Actually the path to an EV goes through the consumer electronics world. 
Our focus, however, will be on better EV batteries, and better grid storage batteries.  Think long discharge times.
Think long life.
Think cheap. 

So, what is this, a new kind of Li-ion battery?  Aren’t those like 20 years old or something?

First off, today’s Li-ion battery is not the same as your father’s Li-ion battery.  Far from it.  Having said that, we are looking at things that will go beyond Li-ion.  Actually, if everything works well, we may have a new kind of battery, which may have no lithium in it. 

What is Berkeley Lab’s role in this? 

Berkeley started working with Argonne on this proposal three years ago.  Our efforts intensified a year and a half ago.  Argonne and Berkeley Lab are the two big labs in battery research in this country focusing on vehicle batteries.  Our team was rounded out by labs and universities that brought grid storage experience and other specific expertise.  And we tied in with companies to ensure that we can deliver something scalable and manufacturable. 

Berkeley Lab has a very well known battery program already that understands everything you need to know about a battery and can translate fundamental knowledge to lab-scale prototypes, a very well known materials sciences program that can make any material at any scale, computing facilities that can predict things that have never been possible before, and a bunch of user facilities that can help see things at scales that are unprecedented.  We will be using all this in the Hub. 

You can read about the Battery Lab role here

Material Science, computation!!  Why are we spending tax dollars on these ivory tower projects? Can we get a job’s Hub instead?

Funny you should ask.  One of the underlying principles of Hubs is to get stuff out the door.  It is not science for the sake of science, but science with an impact.  This ethos is built into the Hub.  There will be hiring of not just postdocs and students, but training of the next generation of scientists and engineers.  There will be technology transfer to our industry partners in the Hub and to other companies that we have ties with. And, we will be moving things to the marketplace via startup companies.  We are trying to build a complete innovation network.  I wrote an op-ed recently in the San Jose Mercury News on how these networks will be critical in creating jobs.  You can read that here.

So, is Silicon Valley going to move to Chicago? 
Please.  Get real.  Chicago is a plain. Not a valley (I think).  So, Storage Plain, maybe?

But seriously, Chicago is trying to get a Silicon Valley-type idea in place focused on batteries.  So are Michigan and Boston (although they have a head start). 
Probably the biggest such collection of companies in batteries is located right here in California.  A few months ago, Berkeley Lab teamed up with CalCEF to start CalCharge, an innovation consortium focused on batteries.   You can read about it here.   

I’m really excited about CalCharge, too.  In addition to all the battery research in California, the Hub will provide us with more tools to innovate.  We are now very well poised to move technology to market in a rapid fashion. 

So, No. Silicon Valley will not be moving to Chicago. Instead, we will have four centers where innovation ecosystems will thrive.  And they will all help create jobs. 

Now that you are not travelling, can we expect more blog posts? Or, at least a change in title to, “This Year in Batteries”?

Maybe.  But I’m beginning to realize that I have missed a full year of TV watching.  Numerous episodes of Sherlock, Downton Abbey, and This Old House beckon.
But let’s not start jumping to changing titles just yet.  Lord knows how many more months it will take to get back my seven readers to the new site.  TWiB will be going through a change (based on a suggestion by a colleague).  Stay tuned.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Are you tired of Li-ion yet? Then it’s time to go beyond it.

Those of you who are faithful followers of this blog (all 7 of you) should know that I come from the school of thought that you always need a better battery.  I even have a law for this, which I call the zeroth law of batteries and it states:

The performance of any battery will fall (just) short of our expectations irrespective of the complexity of the device it is powering.  

This is true for our cell phones and Roomba’s.  And true for electric cars and plug-in cars.

That is, unless you have low expectations. 

The world has seen some dramatic changes in battery technology over the last 20 years, ever since the Li-ion battery became commercial.  For one, the smartphone revolution would not have occurred if not for the batteries.  A lot of improvements are still possible with lithium-ion, and we project that battery energy densities will double when we succeed in controlling more energetic anode and cathode materials. 

But what happens after that?  At the pace at which my smartphone is evolving, with Retina Display screens, 4G networks, and movies playing off of the air, it’s hard to see a doubling in energy being enough. 

Question then is: What is after Li-ion batteries?  And is there something out there?

The answer is: Yes.  But getting there is not going to be easy. 

I wrote about this in two blog posts titled “A brief history of batteries- Part 1” and “Part 2”.  These two posts describe possible battery chemistries of the future and make the point that to succeed we really need to understand the past.  And it is written in the style of the movie “Pulp Fiction”. Can any battery textbook beat that?

I would suggest that you read this blog post first. 

Once you do that, you will want to know: So what is the progress in these chemistries in the two years that have elapsed since the blog post? 

You will get an answer to this question if you show up at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley CA between June 5-7, 2012 (a month from today)*.  This will be the venue of the 5th in a series of symposia titled “Beyond Li-ion”.  In a 2 ½ day period various researchers, who are at the forefront of this field, will tell you what the latest trends are. 

It is an impressive speaker list, which you can see here

As a bonus, you will get to come to Berkeley Lab to see our Lab facilities.  More importantly, you may (I should emphasize the fact that this is a real possibility) actually get to shake my hand! 

To attend you will need to register, which you can do here.   

Hope to see you all (and I mean all 7 of you) there. 


p.s.  Please don’t ask me to waive your registration fee.  Being a co-organizer means that I write blog posts to promote the meeting. It does not mean that I can come up with the cash to pay for your meals.

* The previous version wrongly gave the date of the conference as July.  It is June 5-7, 2012  

Sunday, April 29, 2012

TWiB is back (hopefully with actual content next time)

Over the last year numerous (!!) folks have asked me why I have not written a blog post.  Even at the best of times, the title “this week in batteries” was a wee bit optimistic.  A better title would have been “this month in batteries”, but TMiB is not a pronounceable acronym.  But the last year has been particularly slow going at TWiB. 

Turns out that I have been extremely busy this last year.  We had decided to remove cable television and move to using a Roku box with Netflix.  You will be amazed at how long it takes to get through all the seasons of Lost, CSI, 24, Community, and the rest Netflix’s content (answer: a year!). 

Anyway, all good times come to an end and I’m pretty close to being stuck with watching things real time. 

While I’ve been glued to the box, many things have changed in the battery world.  President Obama decided he wanted EVs Everywhere, my home state of CA decided that they wanted 15% EV and PHEVs by 2025, and Governor Brown has decided he wants charging stations everywhere.

Meanwhile, battery energy densities, after evolving at 5% a year, doubled this year. 

Simultaneous, one battery company declared (Chapter 11) bankruptcy, another company is having financial difficulties, cars are catching fire, and batteries are catching fire. 

To top it all funding to cleantech seems to be getting harder. 

Is there a mismatch between what the government wants to see and what batteries can deliver?

And are we about to hear a “pop” (of a bubble bursting)? 

It seems like someone needs to be discussing these issues.  And I can't think of any other forum but TWiB to do it.    

Unfortunately, I beginning to realize that at this stage, I’m more qualified to talk about why season 2 of Community seemed worse than Season 1, than I’m about the status of battery technology.  So, over the next few weeks, I’m going to brush up on my knowledge and hope to be back to writing regularly. 

So stay tuned folks… I’ll be back.