Better Batteries Hold Promise for a Sustainable Future

A key component of a sustainable energy future is better battery technology.

Better batteries for electric cars and cellphones and better batteries for industrial use that can store excess power generated by wind and solar farms and then supply it to the grid at times of peak demand.

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The ability to efficiently store energy generated from renewable sources would quite literally be a game changer in the quest to build a clean energy future and reduce the impact of climate change.

Many scientists around the world are working to develop the next generation of batteries that will help power a cleaner, greener future.

One of the people leading that charge is George Crabtree, senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory where he is the director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research.

Crabtree is leading the effort to build batteries that are cheaper and more powerful than those that are currently available.

“Batteries are really at the threshold of several transformative opportunities,” said Crabtree. “They’ve already transformed personal electronics – all of our laptops and smartphones would never happen without a battery that’s small and compact like lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion battery technology is really responsible for allowing us to carry around an enormously powerful computer in our pocket. The question is can they transform other technologies.”

Crabtree says that the two uses for batteries that researchers are focusing on is transportation – electric cars – and the grid. He says that while the development of electric cars is moving along well, it has not yet reached the point where the volume of sales is transformative. The price of batteries needs to come down in order to make the cost of electric cars more competitive.

(Kārlis Dambrāns / Flickr)(Kārlis Dambrāns / Flickr)

“The bottleneck is the battery – if you can make the battery better enough you can then capture that 50 percent of the market that you need (to transform the market),” said Crabtree. “But that requires research.”

Although electric cars may be the most visible example of where battery technology is going, Crabtree says it is the changes they could bring to the power grid that have the biggest potential to transform our world.

“I think probably the grid opportunity is bigger than the transportation opportunity,” said Crabtree. “But they are going to potentially change the way that society operates just in the way that smartphones and laptops changed the way we talk to each other and access information. So a huge change is coming.”

One possible scenario that utility companies and entrepreneurs are looking at is the potential of battery technology to completely change the model for how energy is delivered to our homes.

“Suppose that in a neighborhood of homes – all of which say have  hypothetically rooftop solar and an electric car in the driveway – suppose an aggregator, a clever entrepreneur, says that for the whole neighborhood I’ll supply you one battery sized to the neighborhood and one energy management system run by a computer designed for the neighborhood. It stores the afternoon solar and wind power while people are away from home – kids are at school and parents are at work – and when they come home, which is usually around sunset, we draw from the battery and use the power produced in the afternoon to power your homes and charge your car.”

Now that would be a real game changer.

Crabtree joins Paris Schutz to discuss how batteries could help bring forth a clean energy future.

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