Last month, President Obama visited Argonne National Lab in the western suburbs of Chicago. Among the many projects there is an effort to dramatically improve battery power. It’s one of several green energy hubs around the country. In a story reported jointly for public radio and Illinois Issues magazine, Brian Mackey spoke with some of the people trying to revolutionize transportation, from right here in Illinois.
Shopping for a car should not be this difficult. Venkat Srinivasan has a relatively short list of requirements. With a young baby at home, safety is important.
SRINIVASAN: “My wife is very clear: we want to have a car where I can put my baby in the center seat in the back. Makes sense — it’s the safest spot in the car. We want to have reasonable trunk space. My wife has a Prius and we find that the Prius is not enough for us to put the stroller and then put the stuff around it. OK?”
OK. So he wants a hybrid car that’s a little bigger than the Prius and can accommodate a baby seat in the middle of the back. That’s, like, two things.
SRINIVASAN: “I have not found a plug-in hybrid that can do that.”
The Chevy Volt has a battery running in the middle of the back, so there’s no center seat. He says the Ford has no trunk space to speak of — more battery. And the plug-in Prius is not much bigger than the regular Prius, and also doesn’t doesn’t have a spare tire.
SRINIVASAN: “I have not found a single plug-in hybrid car that I can buy that satisfies my, I think, very simple needs. So it’s a very interesting problem, actually. It sort of told me why I need to be developing a better battery.”
For a scientist who specializes in batteries, car shopping has become a personal challenge. Srinivasan is part of Argonne National Lab’s new federal research center trying to revolutionize transportation.
The Battery and Energy Storage Hub is the fourth national hub meant to speed-up the pace of green energy innovation. The other hubs focus on nuclear reactors, solar power, and energy efficient buildings. It’ll get up $120 million from the federal government, plus $5 million for construction from Illinois, though Gov. Pat Quinn has pledged to try to get even more from the General Assembly.
When U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the hub in Chicago late last year, he said it was inspired by the wartime innovation of the Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of the world’s first atom bomb during World War II. Chu said, earlier in his career, he got to know some of the people who worked on Manhattan:
CHU: “What I got from these veterans was that, when you had to deliver the goods very, very quickly, you needed to put the best scientists next to the best engineers, across disciplines, to get very focused on coming and solving a problem.”
Scientists working at the hub will come from all over the country: Srinivasan is based at Lawrence Berkeley Lab in California, and there are several other national labs, companies, and universities involved, including Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and the U. of I.’s Urbana and Chicago campuses.
The idea is to get physicists, chemists, materials scientists and engineers working side-by-side to achieve an ambitious “five-five-five” goal. That was the marker that Argonne’s director, Eric Isaacs, laid down last fall:
ISAACS: “We’re going to develop batteries that are five times more powerful, five times cheaper, within five years.”
Srinivasan, who — when he’s not car shopping — will be doing research to meet that goal, acknowledges it’s a steep challenge.
SRINIVASAN: “But our thought process was: If you don’t have a grand challenge, then your ideas will not be grand.”
Like others involved in the hub, he describes it in historic terms, even comparing it to another ambitious federal science project from 50 years ago:
PRESIDENT KENNEDY: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
SRINIVASAN: “This is like the moonshot for batteries. We are saying, let us — this is one of the reasons why we picked a goal that is so hard — we said, let us make it a hard goal. Let us try to think about an ultimate battery. If you can get halfway there, a quarter of the way there, we’re doing much better than anybody’s done in the past. But let us shoot for the moon and see what happens.”
There’s reason to believe humans have been at least vaguely aware of batteries for more than 2,000 years. Archeological discoveries near Baghdad suggest a crude form of battery dating to roughly 200 years before the birth of Christ. And the basic lead-acid battery started cars for the better part of the last century. But in our era of cell phones, electric cars, wind and solar power — we need better batteries. One of the places they’re working on that is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
BRAUN: “OK, my name is Paul Braun. (And so — Paul Braun.) Braun, yeah. (And what is your title here?) So I’m a professor of materials science and engineering in the College of Engineering.”
Part of Braun’s research focuses on making batteries charge faster — imagine a phone that charges in seconds, or a car that charges in minutes. Improving the batteries in cars is one of the main problems the hub at Argonne is meant to solve. Two of the biggest obstacles to widespread use of electric car batteries are scale and price.
BRAUN: “You can make a car that goes 100 miles. By the time you try to make a car that goes 400 to 500 miles, the battery starts becoming bigger than the car.”
Double the size of the battery, and the car has to become bigger and more robust to accommodate it, which requires a bigger battery, which requires a bigger car, and so on. This is why most of today’s electric vehicles are small sedans, not large SUVs.
BRAUN: “You reach a point where, beyond a certain range, the battery weighs more than the car. So now no matter how much bigger you make the battery, you have to make the car ever bigger, and you don’t go any further.”
Another big issue is cost. Braun says batteries can be at least 10 percent of the cost of an electric vehicle. That needs to decrease significantly in order to be competitive with gas-powered engines. And yet among all the potentially “game changing” technology for transportation — including hydrogen fuel cells, biofuels, and batteries — the most promising are batteries. Braun says that’s because today’s batteries are nowhere near their “fundamental limit.”
BRAUN: “So if I would look at a battery today and I do the math, you could make them 10 times better. We’re not fundamentally limited. And so because we’re not fundamentally limited, (it) leads you to the conclusion that if we knew how to make a better battery, we might be able to do it.”
Which is why the government is spending millions of dollars to bring scientists and engineers together at Argonne National Lab. The battery hub is still in an early stage. But Steven Chu, the energy secretary, says American business is counting on scientists to meet their five-five-five target.
CHU: “If they achieve those goals, they get to those price points, then ka-boom. All new industries. And that’s why this is so exciting, because it touches everything.”
Chu says in 10 or 15 years, batteries will be even more central to our technology — and economy — than they are today. So the scientists are already getting to work on meeting that goal: Five times better, five times cheaper, within five years. The clock is ticking.
— Brian Mackey