The Big Battery Breakthrough (or Maybe Not)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 08, 2016

Is our whole energy future about to change forever? So says the Department of Energy’s cutting-edge ARPA-E agency, which is dedicated to fostering tech innovation. ARPA-E Director Dr. Ellen Williams says her team has had a breakthrough and is ready to deliver the “holy grail in batteries."

ARPA-E’s impressive claim is that its modest outlays leverage huge investments from private capital. Last month, the agency said its projects had taken in more than $1.25 billion in private-sector funding “for transformational energy technologies.”

Phyllis Cuttino of the Pew Charitable Trusts (left) interviews Dr. Ellen Williams, director of ARPA-E. (ARPA-E photo) This next paragraph would be where I talk about the nuts and bolts—the chemistry of the breakthrough, the technical achievement, etc. But ARPA-E isn’t offering very many specifics. A spokesman for ARPA-E did say that the "holy grail" thing refers to grid storage--and the prospect here is that huge battery systems can backstop intermittent renewable energy such as wind and solar. "Some of the projects funded are seeing a lot of traction from a technical standpoint in cost and performance metrics," the spokesman said. Big advances in backstopping the grid could also trickle down to aid carmakers.

But we've been down this battery road before. In 2012, then-ARPA-E director Arun Majumdar announced that a company called Envia Systems, the recipient of a $4 million agency grant, had achieved “the world record in energy density of a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.”

The next month, in Congressional testimony, Majumdar told Congress that Envia’s technology was “not yet ready for prime time. But if we were to use the Envia battery today, it would cut the battery cost by half and they are trying to reduce the cost even further.” General Motors became a believer, too, and invested heavily in Envia as a battery provider for the Chevy Volt.

Envia Systems promises a big battery breakthrough. We're still waiting. (Envia Systems photo)Envia’s goal from GM was to deliver a battery that could reliably give an electric car 200-mile-per-charge range, and that was targeted at 350 watt-hours per kilogram. Unfortunately, Envia’s initially impressive results weren’t duplicated, and the company eventually fell apart without delivering on its promise.
GM told Envia:

Envia has failed to move the project forward or replicate the results on a timetable that could conceivably support the vehicle development process. In fact, Envia was unable even to replicate prior reported test results even when utilizing the third-party anode that had purportedly been utilized in the ARPA-E test battery.

Quartz reported, “Envia’s collapse extinguishes what had been arguably better news for electric cars, which was a singular advance in the battery itself.”

Ironically, GM achieved 200 miles of range in an electric car. It's called the Chevy Bolt, and it has conventional lithium batteries--and a lightweight structure. (Jim Motavalli photo) From what Dr. Williams is saying, we’re now at some kind of major turning point, this time for real. “I think we have reached some holy grail in batteries—just in the sense of demonstrating that we can create a totally new approach to battery technology, make it commercially viable, and get it out there to let it do its thing.”

She added:

What [Elon] Musk has done that is creative and important is drive the learning curve. He’s decided to take an existing, pretty powerful battery technology and start producing it on a very large scale. But its not technology innovation in the sense of creating new ways of doing it. We are pretty well convinced that some of our technologies have the potential to be significantly better.

Than current lithium-ion, she means. To really enable affordable grid storage--or cheaper EV batteries--the cost would have to come down dramatically, and that's presumably what ARPA-E is seeing in the lab. The prospect is that wind or solar could become first-line energy providers, without needing dirty coal plants as backup.

The new tech is said to include breakthroughs in flow batteries, which the Energy Storage Association says involve "liquid energy sources tapped to create electricity, and able to be recharged within the same system." The flow battery's advantage is that it can be almost instantly recharged by replacing the electrolyte. It sounds promising, and we hope it’s not a repeat of what happened with Envia Systems.

Ironically, General Motors eventually did field a 200-mile electric car—the Chevy Bolt. And it did it not with magic batteries, but with conventional cells in a smart, lightweight platform. And with the Model 3, the aforementioned Elon Musk is going to follow suit. Here's ARPA-E's Dr. Ellen Williams on new directions at the agency:


Get the Car Talk Newsletter