All Tech Considered
4:51 pm
Thu November 14, 2013

Electric Cars Drive Demand For Cheaper, More Powerful Batteries

Originally published on Thu November 14, 2013 7:29 pm

If there's one person you'd expect to have an electric car, it's Venkat Srinivasan. He's in charge of battery research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

"I'm actually in the market for a new car and would love to buy an electric car," he says. "But there are practical problems."

Srinivasan is driving around the lab's campus in a mini-electric car, sort of like a golf cart. But there aren't many full-size versions that would work for his daily 70-mile commute. The Nissan Leaf goes about 75 miles before it needs charging. Tesla's sedan can go 300 miles, but it's pricey.

"What we want to do is get cars that go 200 miles, but you can buy them for the cost of, say, a Toyota Corolla or Toyota Camry," Srinivasan says. "Where we are today in battery technology, we need a lot more work before we can get there."

Lithium-ion batteries — the ones in today's electric cars and cellphones — have come a long way in the past 20 years, packing twice as much energy in the same amount of space.

But compared to semiconductors, Srinivasan says, "that evolution is very, very slow" — computer chips have doubled in speed every 18 months.

Srinivasan says lithium-ion batteries have improved about as much as they can. What's needed is a whole new technology.

The Time Investment

Christine Ho, co-founder of Imprint Energy in Alameda, Calif., shows me a battery that's the size of a postage stamp. It's paper-thin and bendable.

"A lot of our customers, and I think just consumers in general, they just want things to be thinner," she says.

Lithium-ion batteries don't perform well when they're paper-thin, so Ho came up with a new type of battery chemistry using zinc. Ho says her battery could show up in laptops, electric cars and, because it's flexible, wearable electronics like a cellphone on your wrist.

Imprint Energy is one of 40 companies working on battery technology in the Bay Area. Many are startups that have tapped into millions of dollars of Silicon Valley venture capital.

But building hardware takes longer than building software, Ho says — and software is what Silicon Valley is used to.

"The investment community has really had a challenge with how long it takes for these technologies to be mature enough that they'll be accepted," she says.

But the potential payoff is so large that big corporations are also getting in the game.

At IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., Bryan McCloskey holds up a test battery that has two little tubes sticking out of it.

"You're feeding a gas into your battery on one side," he says. "This gas just happens to be air, ambient air."

Today's batteries produce energy through self-contained chemical reactions, but IBM's battery would use oxygen from the air. That makes it smaller and more powerful.

McCloskey says it could take a decade to develop, but IBM is hoping the battery will take cars 500 miles on a single charge.

"If you could envision powering every single car in America with a battery that has IBM stamped on the side of it, that has a huge market," he says.

An International Battery Race

But there's tough competition in the market from other countries like China, South Korea and Japan. Two U.S. battery companies have already folded, and they had the help of federal grants from the Department of Energy.

The agency has put $2 billion into battery development, including a national research hub that's working with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Srinivasan says its goal is a "moon shot": to make a battery that holds five times more energy at one-fifth of the cost — within the next five years.

He says the key is getting the technology into the hands of U.S. companies quickly.

"What we're trying to do here in the long term is trying to find a way to create a battery industry in the United States," he says. "Today in the United States, we don't do much battery manufacturing, and so we've lost all those jobs."

San Jose State University is launching a battery curriculum to train workers for those new jobs. Classes begin in the spring.

Copyright 2013 KQED Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

You know the scenario all too well. You're talking on your phone, you're trying to send a message on your computer, and the battery goes dead. As we rely more on gadgets, there is a growing demand for smaller and more powerful batteries. The future of cars is supposed to be electric, but not until the battery evolves. As Lauren Sommer reports for member station KQED, Silicon Valley is becoming a hub for startup companies hoping to produce the next battery breakthrough.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR SLAMMING)

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: If there's one person you'd expect to have an electric car, it's Venkat Srinivasan. He heads up battery research at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

VENKAT SRINIVASAN: I'm actually in the market for a new car and I would love to buy an electric car. But there are practical problems.

SOMMER: Srinivasan is driving around the lab's Berkeley campus in a mini-electric car, sort of like a golf cart. When it comes to a full-size version, there aren't many that would work for his daily 70-mile commute. The Nissan Leaf goes about 75 miles before it needs charging. Tesla's sedan goes 300, but it's pricey.

SRINIVASAN: What we want to do is get cars that go 200 miles, but you can buy them for the cost of, say, a Toyota Corolla or a Toyota Camry. Where we are today in battery technology, we need a lot more work before we can get there.

SOMMER: Srinivasan says lithium-ion batteries, the ones in electric cars and cellphones, have improved about as much as they can. What's needed is a whole new battery technology.

CHRISTINE HO: So here is our special printer. We actually call it Megatron.

SOMMER: Christine Ho is a co-founder of Imprint Energy. The company's Alameda lab looks kind of like a screen printing shop. She shows me a battery that's the size of a postage stamp. It's paper-thin and bendable.

HO: A lot of our customers - and I think just consumers in general - they just want things to be thinner.

SOMMER: Ho says her battery could show up in laptops, electric cars or, because it's flexible, in wearable electronics like a cellphone on your wrist. Imprint Energy is just one of 40 companies working on battery technology in the Bay Area. Many are startups that have tapped into millions of dollars of Silicon Valley venture capital. But Ho says building hardware takes longer than building software and software is what Silicon Valley is used to.

HO: The investment community has really had a challenge with how long it takes for these technologies to be mature enough that they'll be accepted.

SOMMER: But the potential payoff is so large, big corporations are also getting in the game.

BRYAN MCCLOSKEY: These are the cells.

SOMMER: At IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Bryan McCloskey holds up a test battery that has two little tubes sticking out of it.

MCCLOSKEY: You're feeding a gas into your battery on one side. This gas just so happens to be air, ambient air.

SOMMER: Today's batteries produce energy through self-contained chemical reactions, but IBM's battery would use oxygen from the air. That makes it smaller and more powerful. McCloskey says it could take a decade to develop but IBM is hoping the battery will take cars 500 miles on a single charge.

MCCLOSKEY: If you could envision powering every single car in America with a battery that has IBM stamped on the side of it, that has a huge market.

SOMMER: But the market competition from Asia is tough. Two U.S. battery companies have already folded and they had the help of federal grants from the Department of Energy. The agency has put $2 billion into battery development, including a national research hub with Berkeley Lab.

Venkat Srinivasan says its goal is kind of a moon shot: to make a battery that holds five times more energy at one-fifth of the cost. He says the key is getting the technology into the hands of U.S. companies quickly.

SRINIVASAN: What we're trying to do here in the long term is trying to find a way to create a battery industry in the United States. Today, in the United States, we don't do much battery manufacturing, and so we've lost all those jobs.

SOMMER: Some in the Bay Area are planning on those new jobs. San Jose State University is launching a new battery course to train workers. Classes begin in the spring. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: