Three Ways To Make Better Batteries For iPhones, Teslas and Everything In Between

Ken Alston
Oct 13, 2018 · 6 min read

Takeaways from the 2018 Bay Area Battery Summit

From iPhones to electric cars to storage paired with renewable energy, batteries are at the heart of our modern world. CalCharge and the Berkeley Lab partnered this week to discuss “building better batteries” in convening the fourth annual Bay Area Battery Summit in Berkeley, California. The series focuses on bringing together startups, investors, researchers, and other parts of the industry to explore new innovations in batteries and energy storage.

The year’s summit builds on past discussions as well as the highly successful Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) held last month in San Francisco. Speakers from around the world at the GCAS emphasized the rapid declines in lithium-ion battery costs, as well as the rapid growth of their deployment. Tesla Motors is often cited as an example through its Gigafactory of the rapid growth of battery production. Tremendous strides in engineering and production capacity have helped to reduce battery costs five-fold since 2010, to the current lithium-ion battery pack cost of approximately $200/kWh.

Nonetheless, there are big issues to address if batteries are to progress further. The 200 attendees had a central question put before them — how can the industry build better batteries?

Two key areas of focus emerged for improving lithium-ion batteries: cost and the societal impact of battery supply chains. From those two areas of concern came three recommendations: (1) reducing the cobalt content in batteries, (2) rethinking the material loop for batteries, and (3) accelerating the technology development and commercialization cycle.

Reducing the Cobalt Content in Batteries

First, improving today’s standard battery — lithium-ion — provides an opportunity to review the battery’s composition and production impact. A key question is the use of cobalt.

Cobalt is key to most lithium-ion battery chemistries. For example, Tesla in its Model S and Model 3 cars uses the NCA (nickel, cobalt, aluminum) battery chemistry, approximating 4.5 kg of cobalt per vehicle. Reducing cobalt composition thus first enables a chance to reduce the cost of the battery by replacing cobalt with lower priced or more abundant minerals. In addition, cobalt mining is associated with significant human costs to vulnerable populations. More than 60% of global cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mines there are often associated with the use of child labor, poor compensation, as well as toxic and otherwise deplorable work conditions. Danielle Cass of Amnesty International spoke at the summit and highlighted the cobalt supply chain questions in their report Time to Recharge.

To reduce cobalt, the summit discussed a number of new technological pathways. Professor Gerbrand Ceder at UCB/Berkeley Lab gave a talk on cobalt free cathode materials for lithium-ion batteries. Dr. John Muldoon from Toyota Research Institute reviewed the current status and challenges facing lithium-sulfur batteries as a promising low-cost alternative. Finally, Dr. Marca Doeff of the Berkeley Lab shared with the audience her research on sodium-ion batteries as an example of batteries using earth-abundant materials.

Rethinking and Closing the Material Loop around Lithium-Ion Batteries

There are also opportunities to examine and work toward closing the material loop for today’s batteries. One example is examining what takes place at the end of a lithium-ion battery’s useful life. Battery recycling is a small industry today, however the environmental imperative and value capture opportunities will grow as battery production continues to expand over the next decade. A number of approaches to recycling — direct recycling, pyrometallurgy, and hydrometallurgy — were presented and discussed.

Furthermore, prior to the initial battery production sits opportunities to rethink the broader approaches to extraction of the material inputs. One example on lithium extraction is Lilac Solutions, which is working to make it faster and more economic to extract lithium from global sources of brine. Additionally, cobalt extraction can be improved through measures that directly address the human costs and create transparency and protect local workers.

Accelerating Technology Development and Commercialization

Finally, the summit addressed speeding up the cycle of technology R&D and commercialization. Battery technologies are tied to materials science and tend to have inherently long development cycles. Sony started its battery business in the mid 1970’s and produced the first commercialized lithium-ion battery in 1991. Since then, lithium-ion batteries have significantly improved, yet the intervening more than two decades have not seen a fundamental successor technology emerge for general commercial use.

That said, significant resources and funding support from entities such as the U.S. Department of Energy and private companies are reimagining the lab to commercialization process. The DOE’s national laboratories, including the Berkeley Lab, are supporting efforts to improve battery technologies through programs such as the Applied Energy Materials Group and the Cyclotron Road program. Moreover private companies are engaging further. CalCharge has partnered with LG Chem on a new Battery Challenge. The program will make an initial $2 million (with potential significant follow-on funding) available to early stage battery startups and provides access to LG Chem’s manufacturing resources, testing facilities and feedback.

As ideas mature and startups form, there are also lessons to be learned from other industries. Vijay Ullal, CEO of Seabed VC, shared at the summit lessons learned from the semiconductor industry. In particular, he stressed the need for startups to be more transparent and collaborative, including seeking feedback from industry incumbents. He also emphasized the book the Innovator’s Dilemma for new entrepreneurs in this space. To him, this means a reduced focused on stealth and rather than additional willingness to seek wide feedback, even from industry incumbents. He also emphasized the book the Innovator’s Dilemma for new entrepreneurs in this space.

The summit also featured a range of further startups working on these challenges, including Coreshell Technologies, Form Energy, OnTo Technology, Saratoga Energy, and Sepion Technologies.

Conclusion

It is an exciting time to be working on innovations in batteries. Lithium-ion battery production is projected to grow at a 20% combined annual growth rate between now and 2025. Rob Morgan, CEO of GE Power’s Energy Storage Unit, spoke to how technological changes such as this tend to scale faster than generally expected.

Commissioner Carla Peterman of the California Public Utilities Commission discussed in her closing keynote the important role that batteries and energy storage will play in supporting the transition to a clean energy economy. She cited the wide range of needed technologies to continue this progress, and that regulatory bodies such as the CPUC are working hard to support this work.

The summit showcased that future is bright. Next year’s summit at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory will focus on improving battery fast charging. In all, startups, investors, researchers, industry appear well positioned to meet the challenge of building better batteries!

Ken Alston is Investment Manager at the California Clean Energy Fund, which operates CalCharge. Prior to this role, Ken has spent time at the White House, U.S. Department of Energy, Simbol Materials, Penta Group, and Booz Allen Hamilton. He holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and an MS in Environment and Resources from the Stanford School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences.

New Energy Nexus

New Energy Nexus is an international organization that…

Ken Alston

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Director, New Energy Nexus | Mobility/Energy Storage | Prior: White House, U.S. Dept of Energy, Stanford | kenalston.org

New Energy Nexus

New Energy Nexus is an international organization that supports clean energy entrepreneurs with funds, accelerators, and networks

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