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.”

DOE & Argone National Laboratory: New Catalyst may make Commercialization of Fuel Cell Vehicles a Reality


Argone NL 090115 114727Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have developed a new fuel cell catalyst using earthly abundant materials with performance that is comparable to platinum in laboratory tests. If commercially viable, the new catalyst could replace platinum in electric cars powered by fuel cells instead of batteries, which would greatly extend the range of electric vehicles and eliminate the need for recharging.

Fuel cells generate electricity by using hydrogen from a fuel tank with oxygen in the air. The only waste product emitted to the environment is water.

But fuel cells are expensive, largely because they depend on the precious metal platinum to cause the hydrogen-oxygen reaction. Argonne’s fuel cell catalyst replaces much of the platinum with a non-precious metal.

“Platinum represents about 50 percent of the cost of a fuel cell stack, so replacing or reducing platinum is essential to lowering the price of fuel cell vehicles,” said Di-Jia Liu, who led the Argonne team. Their catalyst replaces all the platinum in the fuel cell’s cathode, which usually requires four times as much platinum as the anode, and their new electrode design also optimizes the flow of protons and electrons within the fuel cell and the removal of water.

Many automakers see sales of vehicles powered by fuel cells as eventually outpacing battery-powered electric vehicles for several reasons: fuel-cell vehicles emit only water, can travel over 300 miles between fill ups, can be refilled quickly and place no burden on the electrical grid because they don’t need recharging.

Since both technologies lack refilling or recharging infrastructures and are expensive, both are currently suitable mainly for early adopters and use in corporate fleets. But this may change, if advances made by Argonne researchers can be realized in commercial fuel-cell vehicles.

Fuel cells generate electricity to propel vehicles through electrochemical reactions between onboard hydrogen fuel and oxygen in the air. Hydrogen molecules are stripped of electrons at the fuel cell’s anode, becoming protons that travel through a polymer electrolyte membrane to the cathode, where they react with electrons and oxygen to form water.

“In order for a fuel cell to work,” Liu explained, “the catalyst must be densely packed with active sites that are uniformly distributed throughout the cathode and directly connected to the arriving protons and electrons, while maintaining easy access to oxygen. The catalyst should also have an architecture that can readily channel away the produced water.” No conventional method for preparing carbon-based platinum or non-precious metal catalysts can meet all these criteria, Liu added.

In a paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the team led by Liu reported on a new method of synthesizing a highly efficient, nanofibrous non-precious metal catalyst by electrospinning a polymer solution containing a mixture of ferrous organometallics and metal-organic frameworks. Following thermal activation, the new catalyst delivered an unprecedented level of catalytic activity in actual fuel cell tests.

“The new catalyst offers a unique carbon nano-network architecture made of microporous nanofibers interconnected through a macroporous framework,” Liu explained. “Not only do the active sites inside the micropores within individual fibers catalyze chemical reactions effectively, but the macroporous voids between the fibers transport oxygen and water efficiently to and from the active sites. The continuous nano-networks also make the catalytic electrode highly conductive in charge transfer.”

The paper, “Highly efficient nonprecious metal catalyst prepared with metal–organic framework in a continuous carbon nanofibrous network,” was published online on August 10, 2015.

The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Fuel Cell Technologies Office.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. Argonne is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.