Obama at Argonne lab: Why batteries matter (+video)
President Obama visits a battery-research lab in suburban Chicago to announce a $2 billion plan to boost battery and transportation research. Scientists at the lab are in pursuit of a battery that could have a profound effect on how we power our gadgets, cars, and homes.
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There are also implications for the fossil-fuel-based electrical grid we have now. The current system is inefficient and must constantly balance supply with demand. When you turn on a light bulb, that electricity isn’t much more than a few minutes old.Skip to next paragraph
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A grid-scale battery could act as a buffer, easing the stresses of daily demand spikes. Power plants could squirrel away energy at night when demand is low. That means there would be a reservoir of power available for when everyone wakes up and turns on the lights at roughly the same time.
Mr. Sadoway of MIT compares it to driving a car. You are most efficient when cruising steadily at highway speeds and least efficient when accelerating. Power plants follow a similar start-and-stop pattern. They ramp up in the morning and ramp down at night.
“It’s an inefficient use of the generating capacity and it generates more pollution,” Sadoway said. “You’ve already got the capital cost of the plant there, just put it in the sweet spot and run it 24/7 and use the battery as your ballast.”
Sadoway believes the energy-storage solution lies not in the more-exotic lithium but in cheaper, earth-abundant metals. He’s started a company, Ambri, and hopes to have a commercial prototype of a liquid-metal battery sometime next year.
Chamberlain, Mr. Gallagher, and the rest of the JCESR team are also moving beyond lithium. Among other options, they’re exploring the possibilities of inserting atoms, like magnesium or yttrium ions, into a host material's mesh-like atomic structure (a process known as multivalent intercalation). That has the potential to carry twice or triple the charge and storage capabilities of lithium.
They have given themselves an ambitious timeline – five years to develop batteries that are five times cheaper and five times more energy dense. That goal is at the limit of theoretical possibility, Chamberlain said.
“But we did that on purpose,” he added. “We know they’re aspirational goals, and even if we get halfway there it’s going to have an enormous impact.”