Research For New Battery Technology Is Gaining Steam
As countries around the world set their goals for decarbonizing their economies, it’s becoming clear that batteries may play a pivotal role in smoothing out the peaks and valleys of solar and wind power productions, as well as driving a shift to electric vehicles, and providing power for other parts of our lives.
Lithium-ion batteries are now the standard. They run electric cars and power your laptop and cell phone. But they have major drawbacks, like overheating and their high costs. The supply chain and environmental impact of lithium-ion power cells also raise concerns: mining the materials—like lithium, cobalt, and other metals—requires polluting, water-intensive processes. While many deposits are only found in foreign locations, some U.S. companies are now looking to mine domestically, concerning environmental advocates.
The search for a better battery is on, and promising developments include new chemistries for efficiently storing energy, and smarter ways to plug them into the grid. This week, Ira talks to IEEE Spectrum senior editor Jean Kumagai, and Argonne National Laboratory’s Venkat Srinivasan about the promises, the roadblocks, and what to watch for in future battery technology.
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Jean Kumagai is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York, New York.
Venkat Srinivasan is director of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, Illinois.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. As countries around the world set their goals for going green, key to the elimination of fossil fuels in the future will be a reliance on batteries to store renewable energy production, to smooth out the peaks and valleys of solar and wind power.
Lithium ion batteries are now the standard. They run electric cars. They power your laptop and cell phone, but they have major drawbacks, like runaway overheating and high costs.
Not to mention that crucial supplies of lithium and other metals necessary for making them lie in other countries at the end of polluting, water-intensive mining processes. So the search and research is on for the better battery of the future and the best way to use them. That’s what we’ll be talking about this hour as part of our series on disruptive technologies, those that are upsetting the way we traditionally live.
Let me introduce my guests. Jean Kumagai, a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. She joins us from New York, and Venkat Srinivasan, director of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science. That’s at the famous Argonne National Laboratory, in Chicago, Illinois. Welcome, both of you, to Science Friday.
JEAN KUMAGAI: Hi, Ira.
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: Thank you so much, Ira. Pleasure to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s start at the beginning. OK? Just how does a battery work?
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: Yeah. So battery has a few components to it. It’s got an anode, a cathode. These are the electrodes which store the energy. You have a separator to separate the anode and the cathode, and the ions have to move between these two electrodes. And so we have an electrolyte in these batteries, and then we have to collect the current.
So we have two current collectors, one connected to the anode, another connected to the cathode. So these are the components that go into the battery cell. These cells are then put together to make a module, and ultimately, they make a pack. That’s the part that you see in your Tesla car or in some sort of a unit that you might have to store energy from the solar panels that you might have on your roof.
IRA FLATOW: And what are the major drawbacks to lithium ion batteries?
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: So a number of things a battery has to do, if you want to use it for an application. So for example, you might need a lot of driving range. So that meets energy density. You might have to have low cost.
You have to have the cycle life to be able to use them a number of times. You have to have the calendar life, so that they last maybe 20 years, and you’ve got to be safe. And you also have to think about where the materials are coming from and what the supply is going to look like. So all of these metrics are going to be dictated by the anode and the cathode and the electrolyte materials we’re going to use in the battery.
So if you look at batteries today, they tend to be more expensive than we need them to be to ultimately use them for these different applications. We have to improve their cycle life pretty significantly, but you mentioned this in the very beginning, one of the biggest bottlenecks and the challenges we are worrying about is the supply chain, especially off the cobalt, nickel, and the lithium that goes into these lithium ion batteries.
IRA FLATOW: And Jean, everything else in the battery has been pretty revolutionary for how we live our lives so far. Hasn’t it?
JEAN KUMAGAI: Yeah. It’s amazing. If you think back even 10 years ago or 20 years ago, all the electronics that we have in our lives now, the smartphones and electric cars, all of these things, just grid storage for the power grid to back up solar farms and wind farms, that just wasn’t possible before the commercialization of all these batteries, lithium ions in particular.
IRA FLATOW: The last time we probed the future of batteries, it was 2017, and the big news was Samsung Galaxy phones catching on fire, the thermal runaway problem with lithium ion batteries. Venkat, how does that happen?
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: So batteries are energy storage devices, meaning that a lot of energy’s stored at a very compact form. If you want it to be compact, because we want to have very lightweight, we want to be able to not take up a lot of space or weight when we put them together, the problem with that is very small distances between these electrodes. So if you think about a typical separator, it might be in the order of 15 microns, and that’s a tiny, tiny separator thickness. So if you have any sort of a short of the battery where the anode or the cathode touch each other, then you get to a fire. You get to all the problems that we saw.
So one of the tricks, when you manufacture batteries, is you have to be very careful not to have any defects, and you’ve got to be very careful to be very precise in how we make them, so that we can avoid those kinds of thermal runaway challenges. There are other reasons why batteries go up in flames, but the main thing that we worry about in a battery is the electrolyte which happens to be flammable. So one of the biggest innovations in the future is trying to find a way to remove the flammability of these electrolytes and try to make something that is not flammable. If we can do that, then we can make these batteries considerably safer than what they are today.
IRA FLATOW: So Jean, if there’s an ideal battery, what would it look like, and what would it be able to do?
JEAN KUMAGAI: It depends on what you’re using it for. So if you are using it to back up the power grid, you want something that’s big, you want something that’s very long lived, and you want something that won’t catch on fire. So a lithium ion battery, those are available, but it may be not the best chemistry.
There are other types of batteries called flow batteries that are made with components that are not flammable. Flow batteries have a lot of liquid, as the name suggests, so they’re not really good for mobility. They’re not good for electric vehicles, but for a stationary application, like a power grid, they’re pretty ideal, and they can be made very, very big. There’s an installation in China right now that I think is 200-plus megawatts, and that’s the significant size for a battery installation.
IRA FLATOW: Is that a liquid battery?
JEAN KUMAGAI: That is a flow battery.
IRA FLATOW: What’s a flow battery?
JEAN KUMAGAI: I’m going to let Venkat answer that.
IRA FLATOW: Venkat, what’s a flow battery?
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: So yeah. There are two kinds of barriers that all battery people talk about. One of them is the lithium ion battery, where it’s a box, and inside the box, we have the anode and the cathode and stores the energy in the box. A flow battery is a bit like your internal combustion engine, meaning in an internal combustion engine, you have a gas tank, where you hold all the gasoline which has the energy. And then you pump the gasoline to your engine, where you combust it to get the energy out to the wheels.
A flow battery is very similar. You have these liquids, or gases but mostly liquids, sitting in a tank. You then pump the liquids, meaning you flow it to a cell, where you react it, and then you take the products and you store it somewhere. One way, when you go from one side to the other, you will charge the battery, and then when you bring the liquid back from the second time to the first time, you will discharged the battery.
So basically, you have a tank which contains all the liquids in it which then flows to a cell, where it reacts. And basically, what happens is that these chemistries are extremely safe, because the tank is where all the energy is sitting. The cell is where all the reactions are happening, and so if you want to, you can shut off the tank and eliminate the cell in the tank, so that you don’t have any of the reactions happening, because you physically stop the flow of the liquid from this tank to the cell. So these tend to be significantly safer.
IRA FLATOW: In fact, I’ve been reading about significant different kinds of battery technologies that are made just for what I would call these big grid batteries as opposed to the batteries in your laptop. And I’m speaking, for example, about something called a molten liquid battery that a Massachusetts company called Ambri is experimenting with, and then you have batteries that Harvard is experimenting with. For liquid metals, Venkat, these are whole different kinds of batteries than we think of the kinds that are going into our cell phones.
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: Absolutely. The advantage of the grid is that you don’t need high energy density. These batteries are not moving anywhere. So you can afford to think about chemistries and technologies for energy storage that are very different from a typical cell phone, laptop, electric car, where energy density actually matters a lot.
So the ones that you mentioned, the liquid metal batteries, where there are metals that are sitting in liquid state at very high temperatures, where they are molten, is a solution that works very well for the grid but will not work for electric cars, and Jean mentioned this before. When you think about lithium ion batteries, they work very well for electric vehicles, because they have the energy density. But when you go to grid storage, you don’t need the energy density, and all of a sudden, flow batteries and these liquid metal batteries start to have some advantages and lower cost because of the way they’re put together.
IRA FLATOW: Isn’t it crucial that we figure out how to create a new power grid to share all of this electricity, and what would that look like? What kinds of changes would that take? I’ve heard technologists talk about that’s exactly what the blockchain is good at, having tentacles in all these different places and regulating the flow of electricity.
JEAN KUMAGAI: I don’t know that you necessarily need the blockchain to do this, but you definitely need intelligence on your power grid in order to balance supply and demand. So traditionally, you had these very large generators. They were very reliable. You could operate them 24/7. They were burning coal or oil or some other fossil fuel, nuclear power, also very steady.
And then when you start to introduce solar and wind power, then the supply, the generation, becomes very less predictable and lots more spikes in supply. And so figuring that out is, again, engineers are trying to figure it out. You can build in smarts into the grid, so that you know, actually, instant by instant what is happening in different parts of the grid, so that you can balance things out. You can use batteries or energy storage to smooth things out. You can use other things.
There are things called flywheels that capture energy as a spin. We were talking earlier about electric vehicles. Once you start having lots and lots of fast chargers, that becomes an issue for the power grid. So it will be something that will have to be addressed definitely and then really I think in the very near term.
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: Yeah. I feel like we’re in the middle of this big debate right now as to how the grid of the future is going to look. Right? One way it could look is that you have transmission lines built all across the country, and then you build out solar and wind. So even if say there is cloud cover in Arizona, there is still wind blowing in Texas. And because they are gridding between those two, you could find a way to keep the electricity at a constant supply.
And then to Jean’s point, if you can predict the weather, if you can predict cloud cover, you can predict demand, then maybe all of this works out. So that’s one view of the world. You have an incredible grid that connects everything, but I think that is butting up against some of the realities of the infrastructure, the money that it’s going to take, the permitting that it’s going to take to do that. So there’s another view of the world which is being more distributed. Right?
So it’s rooftop solar and neighborhood solar or neighborhood wind with batteries, where you start to grid these things up. And you have these micro grids or mini grids or what have you, so that you’re not relying on large scale infrastructure projects to happen. The answer might be something in between. Right?
There could be some grid Infrastructure being built or a lot of the home consumers trying to buy solar and batteries, maybe neighborhoods making the same changes and cities making those changes. I think this is an active debate, and how that debate proceeds is going to dictate what technologies we need. So I do think we have to start getting to a conclusion on the debate sooner than later.
IRA FLATOW: Venkat, do you see every home full of batteries this way?
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: Yeah. My dream would be that every home has a battery. Batteries are going to be everywhere I think in the next 20, 30 years. There are going to be installations, where we have these solar farms, wind farms, with batteries to store them, and every home, I hope, would have a battery which is taking solar energy from the roof and putting it on so that you can self-consume it or send it back to the grid and make some money out of it. But I do think ubiquitous storage is something we should be aiming for. It does look like it could become the reality.
IRA FLATOW: Just a quick reminder that this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking to Venkat Srinivasan and Jean Kumagai about the future of batteries, both the materials, the infrastructure, even the sustainability. What are some of the solid state batteries like, Venkat? How are they working?
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: Yeah. So as I was mentioning before, if there’s one big change we have to do to remove the safety problems, you have to remove the liquid electrolyte and put a solid. Solid electrolytes have been around for a long time. We’ve always tried to think of a way to get those solids to work. The problem has been that they’re not very conductive, which means that you can’t charge and discharge these batteries at an appreciable rate. So it’s very slow to charge and discharge them.
In the last 5 to 10 years, there’s been some tremendous progress in solid state batteries, where we’ve seen materials that have the conductivity. So people like me are extremely hopeful that, because of those changes, these will become ubiquitous sometime in the future. Having said that, there are still some significant challenges that these materials face.
Oftentimes, what happens is that they don’t have a good cycle life. So you may have the conductivity, but you don’t have the cycle life, and that’s a challenge. The second one is it’s not clear we can manufacture them at any appreciable scale, and manufacturing of batteries is where all the action is. We’ve got to be able to make these gigafactories of the solid state technology, and that has not been proven yet.
IRA FLATOW: Well, you’re at Argonne, and you guys are very big and famous for your kinds of electrical research. How do you decide what you’re going to be looking at and where to invest your resources, battery-wise?
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: The way we do this at Argonne is we look very carefully at where the market needs to go. So where do we think we need to be 5 years from now, 15 years from now? And then we ask ourselves, which technologies are the ones that might be satisfactory for those applications that are going to emerge in the future?
So Jean mentioned flow batteries. We looked a while ago asking what is going to be the big need on the grid? And we came to the conclusion that, if renewable penetration becomes significant, maybe in the order of 60% 70%, then you’re going to have a need to store energy for a long time, what we call long duration storage. Where we might be thinking about storing energy for one week, maybe even one month, because you may not have the sun shining for approximately a month in winter, for example, in certain places in the country, around the world.
So we have to start thinking about cheap batteries that can store energy for those applications. So then we start doing the R&D needed to ensure that we are discovering the materials for those applications. So it’s really thinking end to end from what the needs are going to be to the R&D.
IRA FLATOW: Jean, I know you’re somewhat of a historian about batteries and electricity, and one of the things I’ve discovered over the years, when we speak about electric cars, I’ve seen research that showed that there was a fleet of electric taxis, in the late 1890s, and people have thought about electric batteries and battery production for many, many decades. Haven’t they?
JEAN KUMAGAI: Yeah. Yeah, well over a century. There was a time when cars were new, when electric cars were competitive with gasoline-powered cars, were competitive with steam-powered cars. It’s amazing, but there was a company in I think Philadelphia that made electric taxis, and so there were fleets of these taxis in New York cities and elsewhere. And I read some statistic that maybe 90% of taxis in New York City at some point were electric.
When President McKinley was shot, he was conveyed in an electric ambulance. So there was a while when electric cars really looked very, very promising. Thomas Edison was very invested in batteries for electric cars. He really thought that was the future.
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: Yeah. I was going to make a joke that I guess it took us 100 years to go back to where we started which is exactly what you said. We may have 90% of taxis in New York very soon being all electric. The price of oil has been the dictator for so long, and I think we are reaching a stage today where cheap solar, cheap wind is changing the economics pretty significantly. We just need to get the batteries to be cheap and get them to last long time, and this revolution is going to take off.
IRA FLATOW: We have to take a quick break, but we will be back with more on the future of batteries with Jean Kumagai and Venkat Srinivasan. Stay with us. This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
We’re talking this hour about the future of batteries and what it will take to get there, to an all-battery society. It’s part of our ongoing series about how technology touches our lives. With my guests, Jean Kumagai, Senior Editor at IEEE Spectrum, and Venkat Srinivasan, Director of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science. That’s at Argonne National Laboratory.
Jean, when we look at what a battery needs to be good at, least for electric vehicles, there’s a value to fast charging. Right? People are used to getting to the pump with their cars, pressing the pump. They’re there for two or three minutes. Now, we’re talking what 15 or 10 minutes. Why is this easier said than done?
JEAN KUMAGAI: Yeah. There’s a real, I think, expectation about your car, because people are accustomed to pulling up to the pump, filling up, and then going. And so there are behavioral changes that will have to happen, and I think people who have electric cars are making that shift, that mental cultural. Shift but if you haven’t prepared yourself, you might be in for a surprise. If you don’t pull up to a fast-charging place, you might be there actually for an hour or two.
And then there are different ways in which electric cars wear out. The motor in your electric car, that can go on for decades, but your battery will wear out much sooner. And so there are different ways in which internal combustion engine cars are different from electric cars.
IRA FLATOW: Venkat, though, it does seem to be improving with the charging rates. I know when I take my electric car to a fast-charging rate station, I plug in my car, and it’s almost– let’s say there are 20 miles left on it. I’ve watched the charging rate go sometimes to 1,000 miles an hour, when the battery is drained. And then it knows how to slow itself down, when it gets close to the end.
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: Yeah. So battery chargers are extremely smart, and battery companies have been very carefully crafting it, so that they do not do anything bad to the battery, while also trying to charge fast. We actually have a large program at Argonne trying to charge batteries in less than 10 minutes. It’s a Department of Energy funded project, where the goal is to try to get it to be less than 10 minutes. It’s not easy. I want to be very careful to say that, but that is the ultimate goal.
Our sense, and I agree with Jean, I think consumers are going to have to learn that they should be charging in workplaces, charging at home overnight, so that the batteries are charged when they need it to be. But we also think it’s helpful to have those fast charging stations for batteries that can take the fast charge without having any degradation, for ones that don’t want to have that compromise. Or if you’re stuck on the road going on a road trip, and you don’t want to be waiting around for an hour.
IRA FLATOW: I want to move onto a major component of future batteries. There’s sustainability, and I mentioned at the beginning of the conversation the environmental and human cost of the materials, like lithium ion batteries. There’s cobalt and nickel and lithium, and they all take a toll to extract from the Earth. Don’t they, Venkat?
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: Absolutely. So it turns out that we are using elements in the battery that are either not easily available or is available in places where it’s hard to extract them from the ground. And you exactly mentioned the three that we’re worried about– lithium, nickel, and cobalt. Of these three, nickel and cobalt are significant challenges, both from a supply chain availability perspective and from how much is there in the Earth’s crust to begin with.
So we have to think hard about finding ways to take out what is in the Earth in a very responsible fashion. We have to think about recycling. We have to think about finding substitutes.
So there is active research going on right now thinking about this problem, but it’s a rich, rich subject that we have to solve, especially considering that we are expecting the scale of batteries to go up tremendously. Right? We’re talking about electrifying everything. That’s going to take a lot of batteries. That’s a lot of cobalt and lithium and nickel if you don’t make any changes.
IRA FLATOW: Does it matter, Jean, then that we are seeing some of the companies that want to use the batteries– I’m talking about GM– making a deal to begin mining lithium in the United States, in the Salton Sea area of California? And also, you have Tesla signing a big deal in Gaston County, which is North Carolina, with Piedmont lithium. Now, that they said they would take, what, 20% of what Piedmont can do, if it resurrects its mining system. Does that make a difference?
JEAN KUMAGAI: I think it will make a difference in terms of having a local source, but they will still have to mine the lithium, I think, in the same way, unless they develop a much better extraction method. And if you’ve ever seen photos of lithium mining, it is just enormously environmentally disruptive. You’re pushing it out of the ground with water and then forming these giant pools. And then you let the liquid evaporate, and then what is left over, you extract the lithium from that.
But these facilities, they go on for just hundreds and thousands of miles. It’s a big thing. So lithium is an abundant element, but it is not like mining for gold or diamonds or something. It’s not like in a neat vein. It’s just sort of dispersed in the ground.
IRA FLATOW: Well then, Venkat, is it counterproductive to decarbonize our economy, if we’re doing it with toxic metals?
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: So yeah. We should be very careful how this revolution gets rolled out, I think. So I’m a big proponent of recycling. I think that we should be thinking hard about taking all the batteries that we have, and right now, my drawer has five batteries sitting there from old phones that I’m not using. I should be finding a way to send it to somebody who can recycle this, and it turns out, today, it’s very hard to recycle these batteries.
There is a lot of technology that needs to get developed, but we need to think very, very hard about recycling, and to Jean’s point, recycling is going to take some time. We have a decarbonization problem. So we have to start rolling out these batteries quickly, which means that we have to find responsible ways of mining them simultaneously with thinking about recycling. So I think we have to think about solutions across the spectrum.
IRA FLATOW: Let me go to that point about why it’s so hard to recycle the batteries. Tell me about that. Why is it so hard?
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: So the batteries are made into these exquisitely designed materials. So the cobalt is not sitting as cobalt. It’s actually sitting in a structure of lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and oxygen. So that’s the form in which it is sitting.
The lithium is also sitting in the electrolyte that is a liquid, and after 15 years of charging and discharging the battery, all sorts of things have changed inside the battery. So when you pull out these elements, you can’t just reuse them, because the elements have changed in structure. They’ve changed in shape, and they don’t work as well.
So the way we’re doing it right now is we’re saying, let’s heat it up, make it into the raw material form. Pull out the cobalt and the nickel, because those are the ones that are economic, maybe the copper, if that makes some sense. The rest of it we’ll just burn and be done with it, and the cobalt, nickel, and maybe the copper we will use in the battery when recycle it.
So there are only three basic elements that we’re pulling out. If you try to pull out the other things, like for example the lithium, it tends to be more expensive than pulling it from the ground. So economics has dictated that we might as well go mining as opposed to trying to recycle. So the big challenge that we are facing is that we have to find a way to economically get recycling, so that the cost of recycling is less than the cost of mining these metals to begin with, barring any sort of regulations. Right? Obviously, that’s another way to solve the problem is to regulate the industry, but if you purely look at it from economics, the problem today is we’ve got to make recycling cheaper.
IRA FLATOW: And we’re not just talking about recycling your double A’s or triple A’s from your laptop. We’re also talking about the cars now that have these giant bank of batteries in them.
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: That is correct, and one of the things that– and Jean may want to comment on this– if you have these megawatt hour installations of lithium ion batteries on the grid somewhere, we have to think about how are we going to remove those things in a safe fashion, ultimately break them up into smaller pieces, ship them to a recycler, and get them recycled? And there’s going to be cost associated with that, and that cost is something that somebody is going to have to pay for in the end.
IRA FLATOW: Jean?
JEAN KUMAGAI: Yeah. The interesting thing about recycling electric car batteries is that they can have a second life. You don’t have to immediately send them to the recycler. You can use those for grid storage, and I think there are installations where they are doing just that. So they can continue to go on, as Venkat mentioned earlier.
Your space limitations, when you’re doing grid storage, it doesn’t matter really. The performance of those batteries might have declined over time. It’s still good enough that it can be used for grid storage, and so that kind of reuse will be very important. Because figuring out the recycling, all the different chemistries involved in such, just the infrastructure for recycling, that all has to be figured out, and it will take some years.
IRA FLATOW: Who’s going to figure that out? How do we figure that out?
JEAN KUMAGAI: The great thing about engineers is that they are always trying to figure this stuff out. They are just, how can we do this better? How can we do it like more efficiently? Is there a better like chemistry, different materials?
They are working on this, and there is, I would say, there’s actually like a battery boom going on right now and also a battery recycling boom. So there are lots of companies. There are lots of government labs, lots of university labs that are working on these problems.
IRA FLATOW: What about competitors? I remember driving a Toyota Mirai which was running on a fuel cell which is powered by hydrogen. Jean, is this really competitive?
You’d to have to build a whole infrastructure of hydrogen power stations also. Toyota is working on this. We hear of other smaller companies working on it. How much of a competition is this really?
JEAN KUMAGAI: There are a lot of people talking about the return of the hydrogen economy, but what you just mentioned is the big sticking point. You can work on the end of the hydrogen economy, like the use of the hydrogen, and you can work on the beginning of it, generating the hydrogen and using solar farms to generate green hydrogen. But then the whole middle, like this messy middle, is very, very expensive. So batteries right now look more attractive.
IRA FLATOW: Venkat, you would agree?
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: Yeah. So I’m with Jean. I think a little bit depends upon the application for passenger cars. Right? It seems like battery powered passenger cars are going to be the future. It looks that way.
The hockey stick has taken off. Nobody’s talking about hydrogen for those applications, but hydrogen is starting to look promising and interesting. And to Jean’s point, the hydrogen economy is coming back, is more in the area of either heavy duty trucking, things of that nature, or for stationary storage. Right?
So grid storage applications, where you might be storing in a chemical form, so that you can take advantage of the fact that you might be making hydrogen locally using solar and maybe using it in some fashion. So we will see hydrogen in different places. There’s also hydrogen for industry, to burn the hydrogen as opposed to burning some a fossil fuel. So we are seeing a little bit of that, but for most of the applications we are talking about, my suspicion is, it’s going to be a battery.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and how much role will consumers have in deciding this stuff, in deciding these issues? Whether it’s recycling of batteries, it’s deciding how fast to move, is this basically something we have a voice in?
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: Well, I feel like we’ve had a voice in the, in the sense that when somebody put out– I’m thinking about Tesla– a car that cost $100,000, there were enough people– from a startup company that nobody knew if the company would be able to stand the test of time. There were enough people willing to buy those cars that allowed this company now to become one of the most valuable companies on the planet. And so we’ve already, I think as consumers, taken choices that has allowed this economy to reach the stage where we feel like electric cars are going to become the ubiquitous mobility device for us in the future. So I do think consumers have a role to play.
I think we’ll have to, to Jean’s point that she made before, think about the differences between the way we are driving today with gasoline cars and be able to adapt to the new reality of electric cars. We have to think about the next time we want to have a– rethink about our roof system. Should we be putting solar? Should we think about leasing solar and putting a battery pack?
So I do think that the more consumers get educated about the problems, the more they’ll want solutions. Same for mining, right? If people start to recognize that we want to have responsibility sustainably sourced batteries, they can demand it, and I think technologists– and I’m an engineer, to Jean’s point, I’m always thinking about solving problems. Engineers can find ways to solve the problem, if the consumers demand a solution.
IRA FLATOW: Just a quick reminder that this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios talking to Venkat Srinivasan and Jean Kumagai about the future of batteries, both the materials, the infrastructure, even the sustainability. So my last question, what else do you think needs to happen for batteries to realize their promise? Let me start with you, Jean. Is it a question of finding the right mix of different kinds of batteries for different purposes, or is it a social and governmental question of we’re going to decide that by year xyz, let’s say 2035 or ’50 or whatever you choose, we’re going to have an electric technology, and we’ll move forward in that form?
JEAN KUMAGAI: Well, that is already happening. So you have states in the US that are coming up with mandates to purchase, to acquire more energy storage, and that’s usually in the form of batteries. In terms of battery’s promise, fulfilling its promise, it’s almost like it’s already fulfilling its promise. There’s no endpoint. You just keep doing it better and better.
You keep refining the technology. You keep pursuing different forms that can have different applications, and then so it goes on into the future. I don’t see a point when batteries become less important for us. It seems like they will just, for the foreseeable future, meaning the next several decades, I think, the importance of batteries only grows. Venkat?
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Venkat, as an engineer, that’s what I would put to you. It looks like we reached the tipping point on batteries, and that’s where we’re headed.
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: I would completely agree with Jean. We have reached a tipping point, Ira, as you mentioned. What I’m really concerned about is whether we can build the factories and build the mines or the recycling facilities to sustain this boom.
I was doing this back-of-the-envelope calculation a few days ago as to what we need in the United States if you want to transition our fleet to electric. And then on top of that, you decide to have grid storage, so that we can start to get to a renewable grid by 2035. And my estimate– and I could be a little bit wrong, but this is back of the envelope– you might be building somewhere around 20 or 30 gigafactories, if you have to do all of these things. That takes a lot of money. Every gigafactory costs a few billion dollars.
We have to have the materials to satisfy the various metal things that we need inside the gigafactory. We need people to run them, and we have to start thinking about how are we going to execute on this, so that we can get to the ultimate goals that we’ve laid out for the country, in terms of electrification. So maybe the biggest concern I have is whether we can execute fast enough, or are we going to find out that we are going to be limited by some element or by the fact that we don’t have money to get to this revolution?
IRA FLATOW: Good point to end on, because that is the ultimate question. We’ll all find that out together. Won’t we? I want to thank both of my guests, Jean Kumagai, Senior Editor for IEEE Spectrum, and Venkat Srinivasan, Director of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science, at Argonne National Laboratory. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.
JEAN KUMAGAI: Thank you so much.
VENKAT SRINIVASAN: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.