Energy Week — Day 2 Focuses on Battery Analytics Experts Predict Breakthroughs in Data Management and Modeling
The experts gathered for Day 2 of Energy Week, the online conference presented by TDK Ventures’ agreed that the development of real-life commercial and household battery applications must first solve several challenges. The experts brought together from industry, research, academia, and investing shared their insights on how and when these problems may be overcome and how they will influence the commercialization and harnessing of stored renewable energy.
The panel gathered on Oct. 19 spent much of the discussion debating the progress and direction of battery analytics and management systems and their related technologies and components, including materials research, electrolyte chemistries, safety, regulation, quality control, and more.
Many agreed with Dania Ghantous, vice president of technology at Qnovo, who cited the need to develop a standard for battery construction and performance measurement.
She said Battery improvements related to data analysis and testing can be divided into two distinct realms — 1 that addresses early-stage companies and emerging technology applications such as machine learning in discovery and another that wants to know what the industry and technologies will look like when they mature. Both influenced technology readiness levels.
Researchers and companies need to understand from the manufacturing process forward how the decisions they make and the materials they use affect battery performance, according to Tal Sholklapper, founder and CEO of Voltaiq. That includes continuously experimenting with chemistries, densities, and other variations, which are common in a lot of research and development divisions. Because some of these combinations are non-starters from the beginning, it is helpful to collect and document data “from Day Zero,” he explained. Automating the management of that data and granting access to decision-makers and engineers creates continuous innovation, fast failures, and optimized productivity.
That is easier said than done, of course.
“A battery is a closed system; you can’t see inside. So, you can’t diagnose failures easily,” noted Venkat Viswanathan, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
He said unlike simpler devices that simply move massless protons or electrons, batteries move entire lithium atoms, which have mass, increasing the number of failure points. Accounting for and resolving all these potential pitfalls requires researchers to match and analyze data from performance tests with the anode, cathode, electrolyte, and other battery materials used.
“End-to-end intelligence is integral to battery engineering and construction,” said AK Srouji, chief technology officer at Romeo Power.
“These systems are highly non-linear. They age differently with a lot of historical independence on how they have been used,” Srouji said.
To predict aging and its effects, he said his company is experimenting with onboard monitors coupled with cloud-based models to reduce the cost and computational burden placed on the battery systems themselves.
Susan Babinec, program lead at Argonne National Laboratory, appealed for comprehensive sharing of battery data, noting that “the quality of the algorithm reflects not only the capabilities of the data scientists and the electrochemists but also the absolute amount of data.”
Qichao Hu, founder and CEO of SolidEnergy Systems, said battery health is determined similarly to human health. Part is dependent upon the battery’s “DNA,” or the building blocks from which it is built. Lifestyle also plays a role. A battery’s fuel chemistry represents its nutrition, and its application represents its exercise regimen.
Marc Van Den Berg, founder of MVDB Advisors, said private equity and venture capital markets are out of balance, with experienced investors sitting on the sidelines of early- and mid-stage opportunities.
He said that because of their experiences in the cleantech revolution. Rather than ventures taking stakes in a thousand companies in the hopes that a couple hundred would prosper, capital became concentrated in a few enterprises. Early-stage companies were left by the wayside, Van Den Berg said.
That needs to change to ensure a steady pipeline of product development.
The panel made their predictions about what technological innovations will disrupt the industry over the next 10 years. Argonne’s Babinec said second-life batteries will transform the battery supply chain. Currently, she said, there aren’t enough batteries in use to make second-life an issue.
“But before long — eight years or so — when the massive upswing starts to bring us 80 percent batteries, we are going to have to handle this. There are several technical challenges. Number 1, to quickly assess the advanced state of health, and I don’t mean a quick capacity check. I’m talking about looking at the various resistances,” she said. The second challenge is to be able to isolate cells and disable them without disassembling the whole module, which would ruin the economics. And the third one is figuring out where these things go so you get the most economic value out of them over their lifetime.”
Van Den Berg chose the solving of issues surrounding the first law of thermodynamics to achieve price performance as the biggest hill to climb over the next 10 years.
“In managing potential energy and kinetic energy, we need to figure out through the cloud and root mapping, the ability to manage shocks and vibrations, to fully recover the brake energy, to manage thermoelectric energy,” he explained. “The battery pack, the BMS, and integration with the automotive controller at the master level need to be resolved so we can get 2 — to 3x the range at about half the cost of where we are today.”
Ghantous said those issues and more will mount as the industry moves toward greater adoption of electric vehicles.
“The next 10 years is about scaling. Tesla has already proven that EVs are real, you can manufacture at scale, and people want to buy an EV,” she said. “How do we get from where we are to having tens of millions of EVs and to have people be comfortable buying them? You must look at the entire ecosystem, all the way from mining the materials to recycling. We need to have incremental improvements all along the way. But the batter is at the center of it all. You are going to have factories opening across the world. You’re going to have different form factors based on what each company is doing.”
She said she expects numerous problems along the way to EVs becoming ubiquitous.
“That’s why it is crucial that we are constantly probing and managing the battery in real time to find out exactly what it’s doing and be able to act on it to predict its performance and keep it healthy,” she said.
Viswanathan said the time lag from idea to market, the number of experiments required to develop a viable product, and the hit-of-miss nature of venture capitalism “is not a viable strategy with the climate race we have to run.”
His answer? “Robots, robots, robots.”
Viswanathan said he has automated every step of every experience he observed an electrolyte scientist perform during a summer project four years ago. His company has built two robots that replicate those experiments. Evaluating an electrolyte for its utility in a particular application now takes seven minutes and can be done completely autonomously.
“Our productivity during COVID went 3x because (thanks to automation) we suddenly could operate 24 hours because there was no one in the lab. Before we could only run when someone was there on campus, so we could run only for eight hours,” he explained. “We ran for 3 ½ months. Someone went in once a week to restock the solution, but that was the only step. The power of robotic experimentation is going to be unimaginable. If you pair that with all the innovations we said we’re going to get in the next five years, we’re going to innovate astronomically.”
Srouji from Romeo Power said battery management systems are the wave of the future, especially when it comes to fleet vehicles.
“Fleet vehicles are more autonomous and have a greater connection between their batteries and the grid,” he said. “There’s no reason to look at each battery as a standalone. That connectivity and infrastructure that enables the data to be harvested can now make decisions that support the whole population, instead of every decision being made for every unique battery independently. We can continuously optimize with the mother of all AI controlling those battery systems.”
Sholklapper noted that for innovation to have any effect, “for this industry to really take off, our organizations are going to need to learn to understand their battery systems to a much greater degree, both from a safety perspective and predictability of performance.”
The alternative, he said, is continued mass recalls and costly delays in program launches that many companies will not be able to survive.
Babinec noted that stationary batteries do not enjoy the room for error that is built into mobility models whose capacity may be 300 miles, but usage is only 50 miles per day on average.
“Stationary systems are designed, and the cells are utilized almost 100 percent,” she said. “The grid is pure economics. It’s a more demanding situation because you must use the battery the entire time. The expectation is that the asset is going to last 20 years.”
Managing performance, she said, will require open-source data or a way to handle data confidentially because the grid problem cannot be solved from a single source of data.”
Finally, SolidEnergy Systems’ Hu emphasized battery safety without compromising performance or range because in the near-term, as energy density increases, the safety aspect will suffer.
“In the near-term, we can probably mitigate the safety risks at the vehicle and pack level with software, but in the long-term, we should develop new materials, a new electrolyte or cathode that can still deliver the high energy density while delivering consistent safety.
TDK Ventures was thrilled to present Energy Week, and the lively discussion that punctuated Day 2 was a harbinger of the valuable information our panelists and moderators would provide throughout the week. Our objective in designing this event was to inspire a new generation of inventors and entrepreneurs, who will help solve the biggest problems in energy we face. We believe the information presented during Energy Week will help inspire startups and investors to identify opportunities where they can contribute to a more sustainable planet — an objective squarely aligned with TDK Ventures’ mission. Through these discussions with the who’s who in the energy industry, we hope to stimulate long-lasting conversation and engagement in our EX-community that will lead to meaningful actions to help improve and future-proof our world for generations to come.
Over the coming months, we will recap the insights the presentations brought forth, and we will publish a series of thought-leadership articles based on the issues, challenges, and opportunities identified.