BNL snags key role in $50M battery effort

Light show: BNL's National Synchrotron Light Source-II is starring in the national Battery500 Consortium.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A host of advanced Brookhaven National Laboratory technologies will bolster a $50 million national campaign to create next-generation electric-vehicle batteries.

The laboratory’s National Synchrotron Light Source II and Center for Functional Nanomaterials will play key roles in the Battery500 Consortium, a multidisciplinary science super-squad led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The Obama Administration announced last week that the consortium – on a mission to create commercially viable electric batteries to power a range of automobiles – will receive up to $10 million a year over five years from DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

 Xiao-Qing Yang: Energetic leader.

Xiao-Qing Yang: Energetic leader.

Joining the likes of PNNL, Idaho National Laboratory and California’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, a BNL team will use the NSLS-II to determine the characteristics of composite electrolytes and sulfur cathodes. In a lithium battery, the electrolytes carry electrical charges from the cathodes to the battery’s anodes.

Brookhaven chemists will also perform mass-spectroscopy and high-resolution transmission electron microscopy work in BNL’s nanomaterials center, while researching materials synthesis and crystal growth in a search for better lithium-battery components.

The Battery500 Consortium’s ultimate goal is a battery that can produce 500 watt-hours per kilogram, a significant improvement over the standard 170 to 200 W-h/kg produced by today’s top electric-vehicle batteries.

The team – which also includes researchers from five major universities, including Stanford and Binghamton – will also attempt to build that better battery pack at a cost of less than $100 per kilowatt hour.

Consortium Director Jun Liu, a PNNL materials scientist, said researchers are determined “to extract every available drop of energy from battery materials” while crafting a high-performance energizer that is “reliable, safe and less expensive.”

“Through our multi-institutional partnership, which includes some of the world’s most innovative energy-storage leaders, the Battery500 consortium will examine the best options to create the most powerful next-generation lithium batteries for electric cars,” Liu said in a statement.

Much of the consortium’s work will focus on the design and prototyping of new electrode and cell architecture, with lithium metal as the battery’s negative electrode and different materials serving as the positive electrode. The goal: reduce or prevent performance-hindering side reactions to the battery’s chemical processes.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is “proud to be part of this consortium,” according to Xiao-Qing Yang, BNL’s principal investigator for Battery500, who noted the characterization and diagnostic abilities of the NSLS-II and the Center for Functional Nanomaterials “offer great advantages” to the high-powered research effort.

“By working closely with the other members of this consortium team, we are confident that we will make great contributions to the overall project goals,” Yang said.

The consortium will also become a rallying point for other lithium-battery researchers. Based on the notion that diversity of experience and opinions often leads to better solutions, Battery500 is setting aside 20 percent of its overall budget for “seedling projects” based on proposals from outside the consortium’s membership.

The consortium is not a seed fund – Yang warned that research stipends granted to outside proposals would be “very small” – but it’s also “not a closed and isolated team,” according to BNL’s consortium point-man.

“We want to get more participants from other national laboratories and universities and from industry,” Yang told Innovate LI. “We want to hear proposals and ideas for collaborating and making a contribution to the consortium team, as long as their ideas are aligned with the consortium’s goals and objectives.”

While the consortium’s primary goal is a better battery for vehicular applications, Battery500’s work may also have ancillary clean-energy benefits. In a statement, project leader Liu said he expects the consortium’s efforts to advance stationary-grid energy-storage protocols, while Yang noted the very real possibility of re-tasked electric-vehicle batteries serving as stationary-grid storage devices.

Along with safety and cost-efficiency, Yang said researchers are focusing chiefly on factors like energy density to provide the longest-possible driving distance – Liu’s good-to-the-last-drop mandate – and extend a battery’s “calendar life.”

Eventually, those batteries will begin to break down, limiting their driving range – but a former vehicular battery that can hold only 80 percent of its charge, for instance, could still be useful for stationary-grid storage.

“There is a very straight link between them,” Yang noted. “When the battery is considered no longer economically useful for a vehicle, its capacity charge may still be good enough for stationary storage.

“It’s not recycling the battery, but re-using the battery pack,” he added. “It will solve a lot of recycling problems by producing a second life for the battery, which improves the whole cost of the battery over its entire life.”

Brookhaven National Lab figures to receive about $1 million per year through the Battery500 Consortium, though actual distribution of funds to consortium members will be determined on a project-by-project basis.

In addition to scientific contributions from the universities of Washington, California (San Diego) and Texas (Austin), the Battery500 Consortium will benefit from an advisory board that includes representatives of digital titan IBM and cutting-edge electric-vehicle designer Tesla Motors.

Brookhaven National Laboratory’s inclusion in the Battery500 Consortium is unrelated to the PNNL battery team that’s hitching its wagon this summer to Stony Brook University’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program.

Executive Director David Hamilton told Innovate LI in July that a PNNL team was one of two separate groups of battery-focused entrepreneurs joining the CEBIP family this summer. But that group is working on flow-battery technologies, in which batteries are recharged via ion exchanges and dissolved electroactive elements – a different science than the lithium-based reactions championed by the Battery500 Consortium.

“PNNL has a lot of battery-research programs,” Yang noted.