For Next-Gen Batteries Look to Universities — and the Rare Startup


PlugIn1Governments and many companies in the U.S. and Europe all but forgot about battery innovation over the last 10-15 years, according to Joerg Huslage, the group leader for electrochemistry at Volkswagen. But with a growing number of automakers now jumping headlong into plug-in vehicle development, and already approaching the limits of lithium-ion (the battery technology of choice for the upcoming generation of electric cars) researchers are now in a high-stakes race to produce the next generation of plug-in vehicle energy storage technology that will have higher energy density, cost less, and last longer than today’s batteries.

Demand for energy storage technology that will replace lithium ion is “tremendous,” Huslage said this morning at IBM’s Almaden Institute — an event that focused on the topic of going beyond lithium-ion batteries. Investors have certainly been concentrating on what will come next, and Vinod Khosla recently went so far as to call lithium-ion a tech that has been “overhyped,” and will “possibly be replaced.”

Now that leaves a lot of questions about where the innovation will come from, who will be developing the breakthroughs and what type of technology will emerge. Will it come out of China, Japan or the underdogs in this race: Europe and the U.S.? Volkswagen, for one, has taken steps to utilize battery tech out of Asia. The German automaker has a partnership with Sanyo Electric to develop batteries for plug-in vehicles, another arrangement with Toshiba for an upcoming electric concept, and in May, announced a deal with China-based BYD Auto to test the Warren Buffett-backed company’s lithium-ion battery technology for upcoming VW cars.

As for who will produce key innovations, Huslage says his money’s on PhD students. That presents somewhat of a handicap for the U.S., he said, noting the declining interest from foreign students in doing graduate and post-graduate work here. As BusinessWeek reported last week, international admissions to U.S. grad schools fell sharply this year — the first decline since 2004, largely because of “the deteriorating job market and problems with visas and financing.”

Startups on the other hand, he said, are swimming upstream — more so in the battery sector than in most others. “It’s easier to build a car” than a battery with 10 times the energy density of today’s devices. As a rule, Huslage said, “Small startups cannot do this.”

One area of battery development that could offer better fodder for entrepreneurs, however, is new materials, said Huslage. And he expects at least some startups, spun out of university labs, to come up with “small solutions” (a groundbreaking electrolyte, for example) that end up making a big difference in battery capacity and performance.

What types of energy storage will emerge after lihtium-ion? Butron Richter, Nobel laureate and director emeritus of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, said yesterday, “Some of the experts here say lithium air is the best possible battery,” referring to the battery technology that the summit’s host, IBM plans to develop over the next five years. But “there’s a lot of the periodic table that’s unexplored.”


Bob Wallace

Freeing some national lab resources to address battery development could be a big win-win for the US budget.

First, the quicker we get affordable long range and/or quick recharge EVs, the quicker we can stop shipping boat loads of cash to other countries to buy their oil.

Spend that money “locally” on renewable energy installation and we create a lot of US jobs and US jobs means US tax income.

And don’t forget the multiplier effect as money is spent locally. The wind mechanic gets his check and heads to the grocery store, the store clerk gets paid and ….

So much better for us than Prince Whatshisname buying another dozen Lamborghinis.

Second, when we decrease our dependence on imported oil we can decrease the amount of tax money we spend on protecting our sources.

Would Gulf War I or II happened if major oil fields were not threatened?

(Did we rush in to “straighten things out” in conflicts where there weren’t oil fields?)


Starting with efforts at Sandia Labs, you’re missing a bet if folks dismiss the national labs as part of this research.

We joke about coneheads up at Los Alamos – in my neck of the prairie – but, the Feds employ some of the largest concentrations of scientists in the world. Many of whom want to – and can – produce superior research for peaceful projects.

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