Why we still don’t have better batteries
START-UPS WITH novel chemistries tend to falter before they reach full production. MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
Despite very promising results from scores of battery research projects, low-cost energy storage remains elusive. A number of start-ups are closer to producing devices that are economical, safe, compact, and able to store energy at a cost of less than $100 a kilowatt-hour. Energy storage at that price would have a galvanic effect, overcoming the problem of powering a 24/7 grid with renewable energy that’s available only when the wind blows or the sun shines, and making electric vehicles lighter and less expensive. But those batteries are not being commercialised at anywhere near the pace needed to hasten the shift from fossil fuels to renewables. In fact, many researchers believe energy storage will require an entirely new chemistry and a new physical form, replacing the lithium-ion batteries that over the last decade have shoved aside competing technologies in consumer electronics, electric vehicles, and grid-scale storage systems. Qichao Hu, the founder of SolidEnergy Systems, has developed a lithiummetal battery that offers dramatically improved energy density over today’s devices. The decade-long process of developing the new system highlighted one of the main hurdles in battery advancement: “In terms of moving from an idea to a product,” says Hu, “it’s hard for batteries, because when you improve one aspect, you compromise other aspects.” Added to this is the fact that energy storage research has a multiplicity of problem: there are so many technologies, from foam batteries to flow batteries to exotic chemistries, that no one clear winner is emerging.
And even the best-funded start-ups are destined to struggle. “It will cost you $500 million to set up a small manufacturing line and do all the minutiae of research you need to do to make the product,” says Gerd Ceder, a professor of materials science at the University of California, Berkeley, who heads a research group investigating novel battery chemistries. Automakers, he points out, may test new battery systems for years before making a purchase decision. And even if new battery makers manage to bring novel technologies to market, they face a dangerous period of ramping up production and finding buyers. Both Leyden Energy and A123 Systems developed promising new systems, but both failed as their cash needs climbed and demand failed to meet expectations.
Meanwhile, the big three battery producers, Samsung, LG, and Panasonic, are less interested in new chemistries and radical departures in battery technology than they are in gradual improvements to their existing products. And innovative lithium-ion batteries, first developed in the late 1970s, keep getting better.