I like batteries almost as much as magnets

Kevin Drum writes a bit about John McCain’s proposal of a $300 million prize for developing a new battery technology for electric cars. What this makes me really wish is that Marie had a blog, because, as a chemical engineer who just received her PhD working on fuel cell catalysts, this is right up her alley. I hope that she or Jeff will pop up in comments and say smart things. And be kind if I say anything dumb.

But at the least I should be able to avoid saying anything as dumb as McCain’s battery-prize proposal. Not that I don’t like batteries, mind you! But if someone were to invent a better one they’d already be poised to make a huge amount of money through its commercialization. Offering prizes for innovation isn’t always a terrible idea — for pharmaceuticals with a limited market of potential users it can make sense due to the huge costs associated with developing and testing a new drug. But everyone in the developed world needs better energy storage technology, and they need it right now. And while it’s important to make sure your new batteries are safe and robust (e.g. they don’t explode too much), that’s still much easier and cheaper to do than it is to conduct a set of double-blind human trials. So sweetening the pot is unnecessary. Anyone who has a good idea about how to build a better battery is already working on the problem.

The other thing to mention is that Drum’s concern over lithium is probably misplaced. Lithium’s great, and a ringer when it comes to batteries. A cell’s energy density is largely determined by the electrical potential between its anode and cathode — the bigger the gap between them, the better. And as you can see from this chart, electrode potentials don’t get much more negative than lithium.

But it’s got its problems, too. Lithium wasn’t incorporated into mass-market batteries for a long time because of its tendency to catch on fire when exposed to air or charged too quickly. And lithium batteries still tend to dramatically lose capacity about 18 months after they roll off the assembly line, mostly without regard to how hard they’ve been used. Both of those problems have and continue to be addressed by brilliant electrochemists, and the lithium polymer batteries we use today are fairly miraculous. But it would probably be a mistake to think that lithium technology will get dramatically better than it currently is.

It’s also worth noting that not all hybrid or electric cars use lithium batteries. In fact, I don’t think many currently do at all — the Prius uses nickel-metal-hydride, a less efficient but longer-lived chemistry. It would just be too expensive to replace the batteries on lithium’s lifecycle. So worries about peak lithium should be tempered with the realization that we can make batteries out of other stuff, too.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t need a better battery. No-combustion vehicles are where everyone agrees we need to go, but they have much more significant battery requirements than hybrids. They have to charge and discharge faster and more completely, both of which are tough on batteries. And they need to provide more total power, too.

Right now the problem looks pretty tough. There are two promising technologies, though. First, nanotechnology and the unbelievably vast electrode surface areas it provides are making ultracapacitors look more and more viable. These devices will never be able to store as much charge as a battery, I don’t think, but they can be charged and discharged very quickly and may not suffer the age-related effects that plague chemical cells. From what I’ve read, they also tend to be built out of less environmentally objectionable materials. As I said, this is no battery replacement, but it may make different kinds of vehicles possible — say, one that’s inductively recharged every few miles by a plate embedded in the road. Or they may just replace the battery’s buffering function in hybrids, and ease the charge/discharge speed problem in EVs.

The other technology is, of course, fuel cells. Marie tells me they’re again falling out of favor, funding-wise, as their recent renaissance falls back in line with a century-long track record of failure to reduce cost and fragility. But it seems inevitable that we’ll have to revisit the technology — there’s just no better way to safely store lots of energy in a vehicle than with hydrocarbons or some other hydrogen-donating chemical system (I’ve heard some sort of ammonia pellet system suggested, too). And if you’re going to store your energy as hydrocarbons (which isn’t to say it has to be pumped out of the ground, of course), fuel cells are the most efficient way to turn it back into usable power.

That’s my understanding of the situation, anyway. Hybrids seem likely to stick around for longer than many people suspect, I think. Electric vehicles may be great for getting around towns, but I think people are going to balk the first time they try to use the A/C and realize just how many watt-hours they’re spending, and how few they have with them on board their petroleum-free car.

10 Responses to “I like batteries almost as much as magnets”

  1. Marcin Tustin

    Well, you haven’t taken into account the particular problems with technology transfer out of research, and the patent system. If McCain’s prize is defined by well-drawn legislation it could help solve these problems.
    The big win would be to make receipt of the prize conditional on foregoing the right to patent the technology. This would mean that even if the person who comes up with the best tech is terrible at moving it to market, someone else would be able to do so.
    Another big win would be to insist that any allocation from the prize fund be drawn down to meet costs of commercialisation, which would again prevent someone winning the prize, then doing nothing. It would also help anyone who wanted to commercialise their invention, but who didn’t happen to be a major commercial undertaking, to start selling, even if just by calling people up who might wish to buy their expertise.

  2. Marcin Tustin

    …and I’m pretty sure that I didn’t hit “post” twice.
    The other thing a prize does is grab the attention of those in academia who might not have thought of working on this problem. Markets are not always that good at transmitting information.

  3. Tom

    I’ll delete the extra post. Apologies if the comment system is being wacky.
    Your last point is a good one, but I’m skeptical of those that came before it. Here we need to have some faith in the market: there’s such a huge potential windfall to such an invention that the problems you outline seem unlikely to occur. If the prize were to result in a public domain better battery, that’d be great. But there’s not much reason to believe that it would remain outside the public’s hands even if it were patented. At that point it’s a question of whether we’ve spent more in tax dollars on the prize than we’ve saved by preventing its inventor from charging licensing fees.
    Finally, I’ll note that a quick glance around the internet will show that outsiders who’ve come up with allegedly revolutionary energy technologies do not have a particularly hard time getting exposure. Consider Steorn’s efforts with Orbo last year, for example. Very few people thought it had much promise, but it was given a fair hearing anyway.

  4. Marcin Tustin

    Well, from my perspective (having been on the fringes of computing academia in several roles for some time) it looks like there is a lot of tech being generated, and the transfer part is hard, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that until science is converted into clear designs, it is a very private good indeed, notwithstanding the publication of papers and patents.
    The other part is that commercial exploitation is not actually a part of researchers careers as such, and they don’t have to really alert anyone else to how valuable or potentially valuable their stuff is; on the flip side if they want to make that leap, intellectual property rights, at least at UK universities, are often unclear, thus making the potential value of taking that step unclear.
    I know that the US is much better at technology transfer, but still, I doubt this can but help.

  5. Jeff

    Yeah… I don’t know much about the proposal itself, but the idea of awarding monetary prizes for loosely-defined scientific goals seems pretty unproductive. In academia, at least, research isn’t done on credit. You can’t buy equipment or pay graduate students on the promise of potential prize money in the future, so who’s going to pay the bills for such a massive undertaking? If McCain really cared about this, he should probably give the money to the NSF or DOE, to be doled out as grant money to universities and national labs based on the merits of their research proposals. This would, however, require actually spending the money on science, which I don’t think is the actual goal.
    And as Drum points out, on the industry side of things, $300 million just doesn’t rate. GM *lost* over 100 times that last year. So this kind of incentive seems unlikely to shift anyone’s R&D programs.

  6. tony

    Exxon will give the inventor $500 million.

  7. Joe S.

    Who died and made John McCain an electrical engineer? How does he determine the benchmarks for a breakthrough innovation? How does he consider himself qualified to appoint the scientists who will determine the benchmarks for a breakthrough innovation?
    I wouldn’t be surprised if the award goes to a company named Haliburton, and that once they pocket the taxpayer’s money, that’s the last you hear about their battery, which it’ll be revealed doesn’t work so well outside of the controlled laboratory environment.
    We always trust politicians to do an engineer’s work, and then we’re always surprised when the levee breaks.

  8. Scott Edwards

    Go watch “Who Killed the Electric Car?” GM had electric vehicles in the 90′s without a combustion engine and they lobbied against their own product. My question is why did GM have to ‘remake’ the technology when they already had it. The problem has always been in the battery technology but they even bought out one of the battery companies back in the 90′s and then closed the division.. GM is hopeless

  9. Marcin Tustin

    Tom, I take your point about the existence of this problem being available to those in academia, but that doesn’t extend to investors, nor does it mean that commercialisation of incremental improvements is currently guaranteed.
    In any case, on taking fine points as we have been, we would need to see the exact proposal – it’s entirely possible that a prize would be pure bunce for whoever solved the problem.

  10. sandrar

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

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