Argonne Lab focuses on next-gen batteries


George Crabtree is director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage

Photo provided by Argonne Nation, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Just how important are cheaper batteries to boost game-changing energy technologies?

So critical, that “electric vehicles have been described as a battery with a steering wheel on it, and it’s kind of true,” said George Crabtree. They weigh 500 to 1,000 pounds more than a similar car with a gasoline engine weighs.

With an aim toward developing a battery, the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research that Crabtree leads was created at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois four years ago.

Since then, the group and partner organizations around the country at national energy labs, universities and manufacturers, including Johnson Controls, have been working toward the goal of developing batteries that are five times as powerful but cost five times less than battery technology did when the center started.

And all that, with an admittedly brash goal of hitting those high fives within five years, Crabtree said. Many in the industry scoffed at the idea that those goals could be met within five years, but the energy storage center is working to do just that, he said.

The center is researching four different chemistries — such as lithium-sulfur and magnesium — and technologies with the aim of developing battery prototypes of two of them by late this year, Crabtree said in an interview. 

Crabtree is a keynote speaker at an energy storage conference hosted Wednesday on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The conference is a way to keep local companies and researchers up to speed on the latest energy storage market trends and innovations. The consortium issued a road map several years ago, said Jeff Anthony, chief operating officer at the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium (MWERC), which is based in Milwaukee. 

The consortium links university researchers at Wisconsin’s four engineering schools with companies on emerging energy and power technologies.

That road map identified growth niches in the energy storage sector, with overall global sales projected to grow from $6 billion in 2015 to $26 billion in 2020.

In getting to more prevalent use of battery power, getting the cost down is paramount, Crabtree said.

“The reason a Tesla used to cost $80,000 and pretty soon is going to cost $35,000 is the battery cost,” Crabtree said. “If you could get the battery cost down by even a factor of two, that would dramatically change the automotive market.”

Technologies being researched would aim to replace lithium-ion batteries, the batteries found in everything from cell phones and laptops to Nissan Leafs, Chevrolet Volts and other electric cars.

Argonne’s also working on prototypes for next-generation batteries for the power grid. That market has emerged in areas with high energy costs or vulnerability to natural disasters. Examples include the solar and battery projects that Menomonee Falls-based EnSync Energy Systems has installed in Hawaii and the distributed storage business that’s slowly emerging at Johnson Controls.

One of the biggest signs that storage could join solar as having its day in the sun came last year when three companies with local ties combined on a large solar and battery backup storage project in northwest Ohio.

More recently, Crabtree said, California has taken the step to replace a natural gas-fired power plant with energy storage. The change resulted from a crisis — the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak in southern California that idled power plants and raised the prospect of blackouts and power shortages this year.

California is investing heavily in storage projects like a $38 million project in El Centro that features 100,000 Lithium-ion battery cells to help keep the lights on.

At EnSync, sales efforts are pushing beyond Hawaii into California and the eastern United States. The company reported Tuesday that its sales quadrupled, to $1.7 million, in its fiscal second quarter, and that it’s on track for a record year.

EnSync announced new storage projects in Hawaii on Tuesday, including one that will store excess solar power generated for Oceanic Time Warner Cable and enable the cable company to save that power generated by solar panels for use later in the day when electricity demand is higher. The energy storage system will be combined with 400 kilowatt-hours of solar power, according to EnSync.

“The system will serve office loads, as well as what is known as a ‘head-end’ facility, which is a critical operating facility that takes TV signals from satellites, processes them into cable quality and distributes them throughout networks and into homes,” said Dan Nordloh, EnSync’s executive vice president, in a statement. 

“Resiliency is often an important concern for our customers, and this system is designed so that the operation will be able to use their solar and storage in the event of a grid outage.”

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