Department of Energy

Transformative Battery Technology at the National Labs

January 17, 2012

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Better Batteries for Transportation: Behind the Scenes @ Berkeley Lab

Vince Battaglia leads a behind-the-scenes tour of Berkeley Lab's Batteries for Advanced Transportation Technologies Program where researchers aim to improve batteries upon which the range, efficiency, and power of tomorrow's electric cars will depend.

At the Batteries for Advanced Transportation Technologies Program at Berkeley National Lab, researchers are working to develop better lithium-ion batteries that could run a vehicle for up to 300 miles. Researchers like Vince Battaglia (shown in the video above) have been charged with building a better battery for future generations of electric cars -- a mission to improve energy security, reduce petroleum dependence and lower emissions.

Today, the top-performing electric and hybrid vehicles run on lithium-ion batteries. It’s the same type of battery as is found in laptops and mobile devices. It’s also the technology that could help meet the President’s goal of 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015. What’s the breakthrough that will put 10 million on the road?

That’s the question Battaglia and several other Energy Department research teams are attempting to answer. Battery science can be tricky. At the core of the battery puzzle is finding a material that stores enough energy to run a vehicle for long distances, but is also lightweight, abundant and safe to use. It must also be cost effective to produce on a mass scale, and environmentally safe to dispose of after a minimum 15-year lifespan.

In another video, Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne National Lab and materials physicist, told Google engineers during a talk at the company’s Mountain View headquarters about the challenges associated with storing as much energy as is necessary to run a vehicle at extended ranges.

He said during the lecture that the size of a battery directly correlates with the amount of energy it can store. In other words, with current technology, for the Chevy Volt to travel 70 miles per charge rather than the current 35 miles per charge, its battery would need to be twice as large. That is, of course, unless we elevate batteries beyond the limitations of current technology.

Among the technologies mentioned by Isaacs are lithium-sulfur and lithium-air, which could produce batteries with very high energy densities. Though, these technologies will take a while to come to market. These are what Isaacs calls “known unknowns” because we know the technology can be developed; we’re just uncertain how to do it -- for now.

In the meantime, the team at Berkeley’s Battery Lab along with researchers at Argonne, Oak Ridge and Pacific Northwest are attempting to improve lithium-ion batteries and determine what will power the next generation of extended range electric vehicles.