Charged with Innovation
The ROI for Battery Technology Projects is Potentially Huge
Some technologies resist improvements. Take the lithium-ion batteries in laptops and mobile devices: They continue to bedevil project teams on the hunt for big breakthroughs that deliver longer battery life and faster charges. For example, after spending US$190 million, the Bill Gates-backed startup Aquion Energy filed for bankruptcy in March 2017, citing the “extremely complex, time-consuming and very capital-intensive” electrochemistry process of developing a new battery platform.
“There is no Moore's Law for batteries,” says Venkat Srinivasan, director, Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science, Argonne National Laboratory, Lemont, Illinois, USA. The law observed that processing power for computers doubles approximately every 18 months. Battery technology is lucky to see even a 6 percent year-over-year improvement, Mr. Srinivasan says.
It's not for lack of effort. Researchers around the globe have been working on projects to improve batteries for years, seeing only incremental improvements, he says. The path forward for a truly groundbreaking solution involves creating an entirely new kind of battery—but these innovation efforts are expensive and time-consuming, with very uncertain ROI. Mr. Srinivasan estimates that it takes about 18 years to find new material, prove it works, scale it up and produce it commercially.
That's often too big of a commitment for private companies, so labs like Argonne step in to sponsor projects. But even public-sector innovation laboratories face pressure to deliver results (Argonne is part of the U.S. Department of Energy.) As a risk management strategy, Mr. Srinivasan's portfolio includes both incremental improvement projects and research for new groundbreaking materials. “We want to deliver success in the short term while trying to move past current battery materials,” he says.
Recent advances in analytics technology have allowed Argonne teams to test more material hypotheses faster, thereby reducing the time and risk of these projects. “The computer won't tell us which material to choose, but it will tell us what problems we need to work on so we know where to look,” he says. That means they may only need to look at 10 materials instead of 1,000 to find one good option.
Koh Dong-jin of Samsung shows the types of batteries used in the company's Galaxy Note 7 smartphones.
PHOTO BY SEONGJOON CHO/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES
This helps speed up the early stages of a project to develop new battery materials. But safety testing is an area that can't be rushed, says Ray Kubis, chairman of energy storage startup Gridtential, Chicago, Illinois, USA. The company develops lead-acid battery technology for hybrid electric vehicles, grid storage, cloud computing and portable power supplies. Even if project teams accelerate development, “the rush for performance has to be balanced with allowing for valid safety procedures,” he says. Take Samsung's exploding Galaxy Note 7 smartphone or Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, which was grounded for four months in 2013 due to problems with its new lithium-ion batteries. “Someone rushed the validation process” at Boeing, he says.
Another sticking point with battery innovation projects: What works in a lab may not be viable at commercial scale. A new material may be uncontrollable in larger quantities or too costly to mass-produce. Project teams can also face significant supply chain issues, says Doron Myersdorf, CEO of StoreDot, a startup backed by Samsung and Daimler based in Herzliya, Israel.
In 2014, his team began a project to develop a rapid-charge battery for mobile devices and electric vehicles by replacing graphite, the material prone to overheating in lithium-ion batteries. Using nanomaterials that allow batteries to charge and hold power in high-charging rates without heating up in the process, the project team achieved pilot success in June 2016, proving the battery could charge in just five minutes.
The next challenge is to acquire tons of nanomaterials to scale up to commercial production, Mr. Myersdorf says. As of early this year, no one supplier was capable of producing the required nanoscale quality of the materials, complicating StoreDot's production plans. “They all see the potential, but it takes time to develop the capability,” he says, referring to suppliers. So the organization is now sponsoring a project to build its own production facility where, in addition to producing the battery cells, the company will treat the materials to downsize them from micron sizes to nanosize.
These kinds of innovation project challenges are par for the course, Mr. Myersdorf says. By definition, the next generation of batteries will be built using new materials not currently mass-produced. “It is a challenge for the entire industry, and it will take time to overcome.” —Sarah Fister Gale
“The rush for performance has to be balanced with allowing for valid safety procedures.”
—Ray Kubis, Gridtential, Chicago, Illinois, USA