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A New Generation of Batteries Awaits

glen-merfeld-mug2If you are a parent, homeowner or someone who frequently uses a cell phone or laptop computer, replacing or re-charging batteries is a way of life. The vibrating chair that lulls your baby to sleep, the power drill to put up a new set of blinds and the countless minutes on your cell phone text messaging or talking with family and friends – they all require batteries.

As a parent and homeowner, batteries are part of my everyday life as well. But as a professional in advanced battery research, I get to work with batteries in a whole different way.

At work, I manage a team that is developing batteries for much larger scale applications – electric vehicles; hybrid locomotives; energy storage solutions for stationary power quality including the electric grid. These require much more power and energy than the batteries that power your cell phone.

Batteries, of course are not new, even to the large-scale applications like cars. In the early part of the 20th century, innovators like Thomas Edison made a strong push for battery-powered cars. But during Edison’s time and still to this day, the economics have favored the gasoline-power combustion engine. That dynamic, however, is beginning to change.

Over the past few decades, we have experienced increases in the cost of fuel and drivers to reduce emissions. At the same time, we have seen steady improvements in the power, energy storage capacity and economics of battery technology. The improvements have come far enough to where the electrification of transportation is now clearly in view. An IBM study on automotive transportation issued last year predicts that every light vehicle will have some level of hybridization by the year 2020, and that batteries will be one of the key technologies driving this evolution.

But for batteries to truly have the impact everyone is anticipating in transportation and even for applications in the energy sector, we need to reduce their size and cost. Performance, of course, is a must. But having a high performing battery that delivers great acceleration and a 300-mile electric driving range won’t practically matter if it isn’t affordable.

We have to find more innovative ways to deliver the required performance in technically viable and economical feasible ways. Moreover, being able to understand and predict performance as a function of the life of the battery is critically important to the return on investment that you get for a vehicle or other application.

In other words, what is the residual value of your battery when you go to sell your electric car? Or, from the manufacturer’s perspective, what kind of warranty do you place on the battery?  These are all important questions that need to be addressed.

One concept being explored is a dual battery system, which combines two different battery chemistries in one system. One of the issues with using a single battery is that most come with a trade-off between power and energy storage. Lithium-ion batteries, which are most often discussed for passenger cars, deliver a lot of power for acceleration but are less optimized in providing capacity for range. Sodium batteries are just the opposite. They can store a lot of energy, but in a relative sense offer less power.

Drawing from experience with both technologies, it is believed combining these two types of batteries into one system can help achieve an optimal balance of acceleration and electric range, while minimizing the size and cost of the energy storage system and maximizing life. Moreover, this type of system could play broadly across the transportation sector from locomotives and heavy-duty mining trucks, to buses, SUVs and passenger car applications.

Beyond transportation, batteries will also have impact in the stationary power sector. For example, they could play a key role in providing stable, integrated power solutions. In aviation, we see that airplanes are becoming increasingly reliant on electric power to support the electronic systems on board.

Last October, more than 150 high profile entrepreneurs, government leaders and battery and energy experts gathered for a symposium to explore the future of battery technology in both the transportation and stationary power sectors. While uncertainties remain, the consensus among the experts was clear. It was not a matter of if, but when batteries will begin impacting these two industries in profound ways. And while the majority of experts had high expectations for lithium-ion technology, it was also apparent that the verdict is still out on which battery chemistries will ultimately have the greatest impact across industrial sectors.

A huge factor that could help accelerate the broad impact batteries can have in the U.S. and other parts of the world is government investment. The newly enacted federal stimulus package contains $2 billion for domestic manufacturing of advanced batteries and components for electric vehicles. For batteries to truly transform the transportation and stationary power sectors, we need to get to the point where they can be manufactured reliably at high volumes.

We are seeing interest in batteries at the state level as well. For example, New York’s Governor David Paterson called for the formation of a Battery Consortium to align and advance the state’s wealth of expertise in energy storage from both industry and academia. The hope is that this will bring advancements to the technology, while also creating new jobs in the region.

Today, we are seeing unprecedented interest and investment in new battery technologies.

Nearly 100 years after Edison and others first dreamed of battery power transportation, we’re on the threshold of addressing the key challenges for batteries around reliability, safety and economics to take them from the lab to the marketplace.

Glen Merfeld is manager of the Chemical Energy Systems Laboratory within the Chemical Technologies & Material Characterization organization at GE Global Research.

Glen Merfeld
Glen Merfeld is manager of the Chemical Energy Systems Laboratory within the Chemical Technologies & Material Characterization organization at GE Global Research.
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