SBU, Brookhaven Lab scientists charging towards the future

BNL Battery researchBrookhaven Lab physicist Feng Wang it the X-Ray Powder Diffraction beamline at the National Synchrotron Light Source II.

BY GREGORY ZELLER

Good news for the future of Long Island’s innovation economy: Batteries are included.

Supercharged by a $10 million research grant and wielding next-level tools that provide unprecedented glimpses into the innards of energy storage, scientists from Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory are collaborating on high-tech, high-stakes efforts to redefine batteries as we know them.

They’re not alone. Researchers from across Long Island and around the globe are involved, as is private industry; General Electric is already mass-producing a sodium-based battery developed in part at BNL. And while the primary goal is to build a stronger, cleaner battery that does more and pollutes less, there’s no denying the massive commercialization potential.

“BNL is going to be an important part of many different discoveries in this area, and more than just creating scientific knowledge, we want to impact society by moving technology into practical uses,” says Eric Stach, leader of BNL’s Electron Microscopy Group and a chief runner in the race for a better battery. “I’m a scientist, not a salesman … but the future market here is enormous.”

Understand, this isn’t about the lead-acid triple-A’s powering your TV remote. The Energy Frontier Research Grant bestowed in June 2014 by the Department of Energy and the work at BNL’s state-of-the-art National Synchrotron Light Source-II involve rechargeable batteries, the kind that run your Prius.

In larger rechargeable batteries, ions – in most cases, lithium ions – move from one electrode to the other while the battery charges, then reverse direction when the battery discharges. As the ions move between the electrodes, electrons ride the circuit. That’s the battery’s electrical power.

But as the battery builds up and discharges its electricity, it breaks down. And while mankind has made impressive strides in the battery world, current technologies leave much to be desired. Stach referenced the lithium battery powering that Prius, noting “that car is going to last way longer than that battery.”

Another problem with current energy-storage tech: Lithium is relatively expensive, as elements go, and “not so earth-abundant,” Stach notes. So the idea is to build better-functioning battery around elements that are less expensive and more plentiful, such as sodium or manganese.

To that end, Stach and his team use electron microscopy techniques to study nanostructures and solve materials-deformation issues. Basically, they “characterize” live batteries, trying to better understand their structure and how it changes over a battery’s lifespan.

“What you need to do is figure out, at the atomic scale, how the material breaks down during use,” Stach says. “If you take a piece of steel and leave it out in the air for a while, it rusts. That’s the failure mechanism. This is the same thing.”

Enter the Synchrotron, an “incredible tool to characterize materials,” according to Stach. The NSLS-II, along with complementary resources inside BNL’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials, gives Stach’s group a deep look at the guts of different battery prototypes, a major forward step in this particular field of study. Before the NSLS-II, scientists were limited to studying batteries after they’d ceased functioning, an electrochemical autopsy that provided only marginal gains; through the wonders of in-situ electron microscopy, they can observe batteries in the prime of their life.

Learning why they fail, Stach says, brings researchers closer to the holy grail of energy storage – development of a super-battery that not only promotes environmental responsibility but forever resets the energy-storage market.

Esther Takeuchi, chief scientist in BNL’s Science Directorate, agrees the “advanced instrumentation” inside the Upton laboratory is key to unlocking battery functionality’s future.

A recent article in the journal Science chronicled the work of Takeuchi’s team, showing how observing the goings-on inside live batteries provides “significant insights” that will “inform the design of next-generation batteries,” according to the professor.

The SBU/BNL collaboration isn’t the only effort to find a battery breakthrough; Stach cites a “tremendous number of researchers around the world testing electrode materials with potentially higher storage levels.” But Takeuchi says the Long Island connection is a good example of how “New York State is well-positioned for commercialization efforts” along the energy-storage frontier.

Specifically, she cites the efforts of the New York Battery and Energy Storage Technology Consortium and its 150 member organizations, including SBU and BNL. NY-BEST “brings together many stakeholders interested in energy storage,” Takeuchi notes, while various state-run incentives programs for startup businesses also embolden efforts to commercialize breakthrough science.

“Advance research and development is an important aspect of the entrepreneurial environment,” Takeuchi says.

So Long Island has the science and New York is providing the proper commercial environment, and for once the combination appears to be working. While many outside scientists and private enterprises have brought prototype batteries to BNL and returned to the drawing board, GE liked what it saw when it ran its sodium-nickel-chloride prototype through the NSLS-II – and began mass production of the Durathon battery at a $170 million factory it constructed in Schenectady.

But the dictionary-sized battery, initially used to power electric trains, is a cautionary two-steps-forward-one-step-back tale.

Green Tech Media reported in January that GE was “significantly scaling back production of its sodium-ion Durathon batteries,” citing a “slow-to-develop market for grid-scale energy storage.” While it wasn’t giving up on the next-generation energy-storage business, GE did announce that it would reassign 400 of the Schenectady plant’s 450 staffers.

This might seem a major blow to those hoping energy-storage advancements will be a vital cog in Long Island’s innovation economy, but according to NY-BEST Executive Director William Acker, it’s more a case of a new marketplace finding its wind.

Reassuring utilities and others who might be skeptical about investing in new battery chemistries will be a slow and sometimes painful process, Acker notes – though “there clearly is a very attractive future for new battery technologies.”

“[GE’s] decision to market both their own Durathon technology and other underlying battery technologies shows they intend to capitalize on the growth of the grid-energy storage market,” he says. “What they’re doing is simply balancing their portfolio insofar as what they’re investing in right now.”

If anything, Acker adds, the rapid expansion of lithium-ion battery manufacturing has driven down the cost of such products – another reason to pull back on the introduction of competitive technologies. But there’s no doubt the future of energy storage rests beyond lithium, he says, and “New York is fortunate to have some of the best energy-storage R&D in the world.”

“The ability to do diagnostics within existing batteries is critical,” Acker says. “The efforts of Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory are great examples of how the energy-storage industry will be revolutionized. This is where the new products of the future will come from.”

That’s the plan, according to BNL’s Stach, who reports exciting progress with a lithium-titanium-oxide battery created by Takeuchi’s SBU team. Commercialization, Stach notes, “is definitely part of [BNL’s] strategy.

“The idea is to innovate,” he says. “If someone were to discover something that changes the way batteries work forever, they’d win a Nobel Prize … but as new advances are created, one of the goals is to patent them and spin off new companies.”