[ My notes from 2015 “The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World” by Steve LeVine follow this introduction.
I read this book because I’ve done extensive research on batteries and was surprised by all the hype about this book because it appeared to be a book about a real battery breakthrough. How could I have not heard about it, and how had they done this given all the problems with developing new batteries? But there was no battery breakthrough. What a huge waste of my time!
LeVine assumed that the battery would be a winner. Yet he must have have been aware of some of the issues since he says that:
- “After accounting for the loss of energy in combustion, a kilogram of gasoline contains 1,600 watt-hours of stored energy. State-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries, by comparison, delivered about 140.”
- Within the periodic table “only so many of the elements that were truly attractive in a battery.”
- “In 1859, a French physicist named Gaston Planté invented the rechargeable lead-acid battery. … In more than a century, the science hadn’t changed.”
- In 1966, Ford Motor tried to bring back the electric car. It announced a sodium sulfur battery that that had several disadvantages. “The Ford battery did not operate at room temperature but at about 300 degrees Celsius. The internal combustion engine operates at an optimal temperature of about 90 degrees Celsius. Driving around with much hotter, explosive molten metals under your hood was risky” and not suitable for cars, only for stationary storage.
- The same electro-chemical reactions that enabled lithium batteries also made them want to explode: the voltage would run away with itself, a cell would ignite, and before you knew it the battery was spitting out flames. But you seemed no better off if you played it safe and used other elements—you’d find that they slowly fell apart on repeated charge and discharge.
- The public and regulators insisted battery-electric cars must be safe, so of course a battery that was chronically explosive would be rejected. But a safe battery that could go a long “distance and [with high] acceleration tended to make the battery more dangerous.”
- “Thackeray’s goal for NMC 2.0 was to double current performance plus cut the cost. But even that would leave batteries still about a sixth the energy density of gasoline.”
- “The battery race would involve a series of unforeseen, terrible problems that you simply could not recognize in the tiny volumes and coin cells produced in the national labs. You needed a ton of the material and hundreds of cells, and you had to charge and recharge them again and again before the problems surfaced. Only then could you think about the solutions necessary to get the technology into a car.”
- “Consumer electronics typically wear out and require replacement every two or three years. They lock up, go on the fritz, and generally degrade. They are fragile when jostled or dropped and are often cheaper to replace than repair. If battery manufacturers and carmakers produced such mediocrity, they could be run out of business, sued for billions and perhaps even go to prison if anything catastrophic occurred. Automobiles have to last at least a decade and start every time. Their performance had to remain roughly the same throughout.”
But then LeVine says “When a development is needed badly enough, it comes. Without some drastic change, American cities will eventually become uninhabitable. The electric automobile can stop the trend toward poisoned air. Its details are yet to be decided. But it will come. And it won’t be long.”
Huh? LeVine really believes that after what he knows about batteries above?
According to George Blomgren, a former senior technology researcher at Eveready “It’s been more than 200 years and we have maybe 5 different successful rechargeable batteries” . Yet a better battery has always been just around the corner:
- 1901: “A large number of people … are looking forward to a revolution in the generating power of storage batteries, and it is the opinion of many that the long-looked-for, light weight, high capacity battery will soon be discovered.” (Hiscox)
- 1901: “Demand for a proper automobile storage battery is so crying that it soon must result in the appearance of the desired accumulator [battery]. Everywhere in the history of industrial progress, invention has followed close in the wake of necessity” (Electrical Review #38. May 11, 1901. McGraw-Hill)
- 1974: “The consensus among EV proponents and major battery manufacturers is that a high-energy, high power-density battery – a true breakthrough in electrochemistry – could be accomplished in just 5 years” (Machine Design).
- 2014 internet search “battery breakthrough” gets 7,710,000 results, including: Secretive Company Claims Battery Breakthrough, ‘Holy Grail’ of Battery Design Achieved, Stanford breakthrough might triple battery life, A Battery That ‘Breathes’ Could Power Next-Gen Electric Vehicles, 8 Potential EV and Hybrid Battery Breakthroughs.
And there are far more issues with developing batteries than LeVine mentioned which you can read about in my post “Who Killed the Electric Car?” at http://energyskeptic.com/2016/who-killed-the-electric-car/
Since civilization ends if trucks stop running, batteries for TRUCKS is what matters. Battery electric cars do nothing to solve the liquid fuels transportation energy crisis since diesel engines can’t burn gasoline, so the fuel saved is no big deal. The heavy-duty trucks that do the actual work of civilization (and locomotives and ships) can’t run on batteries because even if batteries were improved 10-fold they’ll still be too heavy (see electric truck posts here).
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]
- Who Killed the Electric Car?
- Making the most energy dense battery from the palette of the periodic table
- Revolutionary understanding of phsics needed to improve batteries – don’t hold your breath
- American Physical Society: has the Battery Bubble Burst?
- Batteries are made of rare, declining, and imported minerals
- Battery energy density too low to power cars
- Diesel is finite. Trucks are the bedrock of civilization. So where are the battery electric trucks?
- Heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell trucks a waste of energy and money
- All Electric Trucks. Probably not going to happen. Ever. Why not?
- Hybrid electric trucks are very different from HEV cars
- Electric truck range is less in cold weather
- Would Tesla, li-ion batteries, SolarCity or SpaceX exist without $4.9 billion in government subsidies?
- Electric vehicle overview
- What is the life span of a vehicle Lithium-ion Battery?
- EPA LCA study lithium-ion battery environmental impact, energy used, recycling issues
- Bloomberg News: Tesla’s new battery doesn’t work that well with solar
- Utility scale energy storage batteries limited by materials and few locations for pumped hydro, compressed air
- Roger Andrews: California public utilities vote no on energy storage
- Electric Grid Energy Storage
- Renewable Energy can’t supply more than 30% of electricity without revolutionary battery breakthrough
- Why aren’t there Battery Powered Airplanes?
Notes from “The Powerhouse”:
Before returning home to Beijing, Wan, China’s minister of science, had asked to visit two places—Argonne National Laboratory, a secure federal research center outside Chicago, and a plant near Detroit where General Motors was testing the Volt, the first new electric car of its type in the world. Jabbing his finger into a book again and again, Chamberlain said that Wan was no mere sightseer. He had a mission, which was to stalk Chamberlain’s team of geniuses, the scientists he managed in the Battery Department at Argonne. They had invented the breakthrough lithium-ion battery technology behind the Volt, and Wan, Chamberlain was certain, hoped to appropriate Argonne’s work. But Chamberlain was not going, and hoped that no one at the lab would not explicitly mention nickel manganese cobalt, or NMC, the compound at the core of the Argonne invention contained in the Volt during an Gang’s visit.
Argonne possessed formidable intellectual firepower and inventions, such as the American patent for its NMC breakthrough. It achieved three grand aims—allowing the Volt to travel 40 miles on a single charge, to accelerate rapidly, and to do both without bursting into flames.
The electric age would puncture the demand for oil and thus rattle petroleum powers such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries as a whole, stripped of tens of billions of dollars in income. China could put its population in electric cars, shun gasoline propulsion, and clean up its air. Generally speaking, the world might spend less on oil and worry less about climate change.
By 2030, advanced battery companies would swell into a $100 billion-a-year industry and the electric car business into several $100 billion-a-year behemoth corporations. When you sought justification for this enthusiasm, you heard a mainstream assumption that hybrid and pure electric vehicles would make up 13 to 15% of all cars produced around the world by 2020; a decade or two later, they would reach about 50 percent.
Volta created his battery while carrying out experiments to disprove Galvani. Benjamin Franklin, a contemporary, had already coined the word to describe a rudimentary electric device he built out of glass panes, lead plates, and wires. But Franklin’s was a battery in name only, while Volta’s was a true electric storage unit. After Volta’s brainchild, scientists kept hooking up batteries to corpses to see if they could be coaxed back to life. Many wondered whether electricity could cure cancer or if it was the source of life itself. What if souls were electric impulses?
To make a battery, you start with two components called electrodes. One is negatively charged, and is called the anode. The other, positively charged electrode is called the cathode. When the battery produces electricity—when it discharges—positively charged lithium atoms, known as ions, shuttle from the negative to the positive electrode (thus giving the battery its name, lithium-ion). But to get there, the ions need a facilitator—something through which to travel—and that is a substance called electrolyte. If you can reverse the process—if you can force the ions now to shuttle back to the negative electrode—you recharge the battery. When you do that again and again, shuttling the ions back and forth between the electrodes, you have what is called a rechargeable battery. But that is a quality that only certain batteries possess.
The small number of parts has both helped and hindered the efforts of scientists to improve on Volta’s creation. They had only the cathode, the anode, and the electrolyte to think about, and, to fashion them, a lot of potentially suitable elements on the entire periodic table. Yet this went both ways—there was no way to bypass those three parts and, as it soon became apparent, only so many of the elements that were truly attractive in a battery.
In 1859, a French physicist named Gaston Planté invented the rechargeable lead-acid battery. Planté’s battery used a cathode made of lead oxide and an anode of electron-heavy metallic lead. When his battery discharged electricity, the electrodes reacted with a sulfuric acid electrolyte, creating lead sulfate and producing electric current. But Planté’s structure went back to the very beginning—it was Volta’s pile, merely turned on its side, with plates stacked next to rather than atop one another. The Energizer, commercialized in 1980, was a remarkably close descendant of Planté’s invention. In more than a century, the science hadn’t changed.
In 1966, Ford Motor tried to bring back the electric car. It announced a battery that used liquid electrodes and a solid electrolyte, the opposite of Planté’s configuration. It was a new way of thinking, with electrodes—one sulfur and the other sodium—that were light and could store 15 times more energy than lead-acid in the same space. There were disadvantages, of course. The Ford battery did not operate at room temperature but at about 300 degrees Celsius. The internal combustion engine operates at an optimal temperature of about 90 degrees Celsius. Driving around with much hotter, explosive molten metals under your hood was risky. Realistically speaking, that would confine the battery’s practical use to stationary storage, such as at electric power stations. Yet at first, both Ford and the public disregarded prudence. With its promise of clean-operating electric cars, Ford captured the imagination of a 1960s population suddenly conscious of the smog engulfing its cities. Popular Science described an initial stage at which electric Fords using lead-acid batteries could travel 40 miles at a top speed of 40 miles an hour. As the new sulfur-sodium batteries came into use, cars would travel 200 miles at highway speeds, Ford claimed. You would recharge for an hour, and then drive another 200 miles.
A pair of rival reporters who were briefed along with the Popular Science man were less impressed—despite Ford’s claims, one remarked within earshot of the Popular Science man that electrics would “never” be ready for use. The Popular Science writer went on: They walked out to their cars, started, and drove away, leaving two trains of unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and other pollution to add to the growing murkiness of the Detroit atmosphere.
When a development is needed badly enough, it comes. Without some drastic change, American cities will eventually become uninhabitable. The electric automobile can stop the trend toward poisoned air. Its details are yet to be decided. But it will come. And it won’t be long.
For a few years, the excitement around Ford’s breakthrough resembled the commercially inventive nineteenth century all over again. Around the world, researchers sought to emulate and, if they could, best Ford. As it had been on nuclear energy, Argonne sought to be the arbiter of the new age. In the late 1960s, an aggressive electrochemist named Elton Cairns became head of a new Argonne research unit—a Battery Department. Cairns initiated a comprehensive study of high-temperature batteries like Ford’s. Someone suggested a hybrid electric bus assisted by a methane-propelled phosphoric acid fuel cell, and it was examined as well. Welcoming suggestions, the lab director insisted only that any invention be aimed at rapid introduction to the market. To be sure that would happen, he invited companies to embed scientists at Argonne for periods of a few months to a year, and many did so. John Goodenough, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that everything suddenly changed. Batteries were no longer boring. Goodenough attributed the frenzy to a combination of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, a general belief that the world was running out of petroleum, and rousing scientific advances on both sides of the Atlantic.
The same electro-chemical reactions that enabled lithium batteries also made them want to explode: the voltage would run away with itself, a cell would ignite, and before you knew it the battery was spitting out flames. But you seemed no better off if you played it safe and used other elements—you’d find that they slowly fell apart on repeated charge and discharge.
In 1980, four years after Goodenough arrived at Oxford, lithium-cobalt-oxide was a breakthrough even bigger than Ford’s sodium-sulfur configuration. It was the first lithium-ion cathode with the capacity to power both compact and relatively large devices, a quality that made it far superior to anything on the market. Goodenough’s invention changed what was possible: it enabled the age of modern mobile phones and laptop computers. It also opened a path to the investigation of a potential resurrection of electric vehicles.
In 1991, Sony, pivoting off Yoshino’s brainchild, released a lithium-ion battery for small electronic devices. Later versions of the Sony battery would contain a better anode made of benign graphite, whose absorptive layers were a perfect temporary burrowing place for lithium ions. But the advance as a whole—the combination of Goodenough’s cathode and a carbon or graphite anode—created an overnight blockbuster consumer product. It enabled several multibillion-dollar-a-year industries of small recording devices and other electronics. It triggered copycat batteries and a frenzy in labs around the world to find even better lithium-ion configurations that would pack more energy in a smaller and smaller space.
If you were thinking about an electric car, the NMC led to a better cathode than Goodenough’s lithium-cobalt-oxide, his lithium-iron-phosphate, or Thackeray’s own manganese spinel. Not only was it cheaper and safer, but Thackeray also calculated that the extra lithium in the system improved its performance. The double lattice let you pull out 60 or 70% of the lithium before collapsing, well over the 50 percent you could withdraw from Goodenough’s lithium-cobalt-oxide. That extra lithium—the added 10 or 20%—meant more energy.
Very few people would settle for a single trait in an electric car. The ability to travel a long distance was important, but it was not sufficient; drivers demanded other qualities, too. They wanted the car to take off—immediately—when they pressed the accelerator, and to keep on accelerating to high speeds. They insisted that their vehicle be safe—consumers, not to mention regulators, would reject any car with a chronically explosive battery. The last quality was possibly the hardest to deliver: pushing for such performance in distance and acceleration tended to make the battery more dangerous.
The NMC and manganese spinel—in a combined-formulation battery for the Volt, its first new electrified car, a plug-in hybrid that it launched in 2010. GM said the battery’s 40-mile distance was ideal for a first-iteration Volt.
Dahn, a blunt and outspoken battery researcher whose own version of the NMC had been patented by the 3M Company just after the Argonne pair, announced a big jump in the material’s performance. It happened when, as an experiment, he juiced the voltage. The capacity surged. If you pack lithium into a battery and apply voltage to move it from the cathode to the anode—the act of charging the battery—the structure puts up fierce resistance. It restricts the lithium’s free movement, thus limiting how fast energy can be extracted, and thus how fast a car could go. Some goes astray along the way, stuck in one or the other side of the battery. In the case of NMC, it had high energy—you could pack in a lot of lithium—but relatively low power, meaning that you could not extract the lithium very fast. What Dahn did was to raise the voltage used to charge the battery above 4.5 volts—to about 4.8 volts, considerably more than the usual 4.3. That boost triggered a race of shuttling electrons. The result was staggering.
Theoretically speaking, Dahn was putting almost all of the lithium into motion between the cathode and the anode. In principle, you should not have been able to extract that much lithium from the cathode, thus removing important walls from the latticework of the cathode—the house of oxygen and metal atoms should collapse. But Dahn discovered that he could do so. Johnson went into the lab and tried to duplicate Dahn’s claims using the Li2MnO3. He pushed the voltage over 4.5 volts. Just as Dahn had reported, the capacity surged. It was an important discovery. The numbers told the tale. Ordinarily, lithium-ion batteries such as Goodenough’s lithium-cobalt-oxide store around 140 milliampere-hours of electric charge per gram, a revolutionary capacity when it was invented but insufficient for the ambitions of the new electric age. By pushing the voltage, Johnson was getting much more—250 milliampere-hours per gram, which was even higher than the 220 that Dahn was reporting. Trying again, Johnson got 280, almost twice lithium-cobalt-oxide’s performance. The experiments suggested that the NMC was even more powerful than they had thought on pioneering it five years earlier—far more. At once Li2MnO3 was not simply a fortifying agent, as had been presumed. At just over 4.5 volts, it came alive in a very muscular manner. At this higher voltage, you activated a new, heretofore unrecognized dimension of NMC. This was NMC 2.0, the breakthrough that could push electric cars over the bar and challenge gasoline-fueled engines.
It was his voice that captured attention in meetings. In a room of competing opinions, his basso profundo seemed to prevail. The voice made it impossible to ignore Chamberlain when he began to moralize. Among his gripes was “anti-intellectualism among elected officials.” Another was how Americans were “beholden to the interests of those who produce oil.” Chamberlain would continue to anyone listening: “We are the Saudi Arabia of coal and have nuclear energy. We should aim at energy independence with coal, solar, wind, and nuclear, then use them to charge up electric cars. Use electricity instead of oil—for everything. How do we get there?” He was hokey, which endeared him to the rank and file, scientists who were unmoved by talk of a battery war but gung-ho on the subject of importing less Middle East oil. Their passions rose at the idea that batteries could help stop climate change.
They believed Chamberlain when he said over the following years that many oil despots would be in trouble if drivers turned to electric cars to the degree Obama and Wan Gang both sought and those vehicles were charged with electricity produced by natural gas. Oil prices would fall, undercutting the long-running flood of money to Russia and OPEC, especially members that themselves did not possess gas. Since China would require less foreign oil, a current subtext to tension with outsiders—its colossal need for imported resources—would soften, and its air would be cleaner. When you added up these factors, you also emitted much less carbon. What was to dislike? Chamberlain understood that his boosterism infused the lab with a sense of purpose and that led him to promote the big energy picture even more.
Chamberlain and Schroeder tried another idea. A material known as a dendritic polymer was generating excitement. It was a compound that could be turned into a variety of products. What caught Chamberlain’s and Schroeder’s attention was that it could prevent melting in silicon wafers, a crucial need in computers—you needed to remove as much metal as possible and keep down the heat or your system would go down. A New England inventor had found a way to make dendritic polymers cheaply, and Chamberlain and Schroeder took his idea to Silicon Valley. Here was a certain path to fortune. But no venture capitalist they met felt the same confidence. All the pair heard was, “Do you have anything in energy?” The issue was timing. The smart money was shifting from chips to alternative energy.
So he began talking to American companies that were in the battery game. He pushed them to shift to the NMC. Johnson Controls and Procter & Gamble both said they could in principle manufacture batteries installed with the NMC. But they would have to give it a long think. Configuring factories anew for a different battery would take five years. That he and Sinkula had launched their own start-up company. It would center around the NMC and be marketed to carmakers. In the coming years, the move on their own would be the subject of a considerable dispute with Michael Pak, NanoeXa’s CEO. But for now, fortune was with them. As Jeff Chamberlain had found in his own start-up stage, energy was the rage in Silicon Valley. Venture capital firms were competing fiercely for the most promising ideas. They had decided that renewable energy was the next big boom. But their eagerness seemed different from the past manias. It wasn’t just about money. The fever aligned with the Valley’s strain of politics, which generally vilified oil, embraced its technological rivals, and fretted about climate change. Here was a way for the venture capitalists to do well and do good.
Nationally and globally, a similar sentiment took hold about global warming. Barack Obama, at the time an American senator initiating a campaign for president, vowed to promote non–fossil fuel technology and reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases. But it was generally believed that whoever was elected, Democrat or Republican, would push through laws and federal spending to buoy solar, wind, biofuel—and battery companies. Silicon Valley’s venture capital community was prepared for these new policies and the commerce that would follow.
Moroccan-born Khalil Amine unapologetically hired only foreigners. His group included not a single American-born researcher. Over the years, Amine had employed the occasional American and even a Frenchman. But now, apart from two other Moroccans (and himself), his group was entirely Chinese. Over sushi after work, Amine said he had concluded that the job was too demanding for United States–born Americans. And not just for them—some Asians, too, were not up to the task. “I have had Caucasians in my group before. Also Indians, Koreans,” Amine said. “But I will tell you this—I’m very demanding. I come to work at six A.M., five A.M. I work weekends. I have to make sure that we produce. The Chinese work this way, too—they are extremely hardworking. But some of the Caucasians, they don’t like that. It seems like big stress on them.
Amine was not alone in invoking a supposedly unique Asian cultural DNA when it came to science, technology, and the work ethic, in particular one native to Chinese, but he said the results spoke for themselves. If you considered inventions and published papers, his group was the most prolific in the Battery Department. By Amine’s own count, his group had produced 120 or so inventions over the last decade. “The next group is not even close,” he said, which was true. “And if you look at papers—last year we published about forty-seven, forty-eight. Some professors, they publish that many in their entire careers.
The subtext wasn’t merely the view that foreign-born battery guys worked harder but that Americans were simply not a large part of the job pool. The battery guys said that when they advertised a new position, dozens of applicants would respond of whom just two or three typically would be American. The proportions explained why these few Americans, whatever their qualifications, were often outshined by the mountain of overseas competition. There simply did not seem to be many Americans eager to invent the next big battery. Americans trained in the disciplines attacking the battery challenge—in physics, chemical engineering, material science. But their jobs of choice tended to be in other fields. Among the places they landed were Silicon Valley’s high-tech firms. Or, even if they did go into batteries, they rejected basic research, which almost certainly required up to three years of uncertain toil as a postdoctoral assistant, and went into private industry.
One trait of Argonne’s foreign-born staff was traditional personal and family aspirations: they were seeking a new life with greater prospects for their children. “I’m not saying it in a way to degrade the other guys,” Amine said, “but Caucasian Americans—they don’t want to do Ph.D.s. They go for an MBA or something like that. For example, I was invited to give a talk at MIT. I would say seventy percent of the students were Asian. Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese. I went to Berkeley—same thing.” Foreign battery guys in fact often completed not just one postdoctoral assistantship before securing permanent employment, but two or even three three-year stints. A postdoctoral researcher at Argonne earned about $61,000 a year, which was high for such a position. When offered a staff job, the pay was bumped up a bit and rose regularly from there, which became even more attractive in combination with the stability of federal lab work. But it was not high-tech scale. Their determination was distinct not just from Americans’ but also from that of the Silicon Valley immigrants. Once you settled on a life in batteries, a simple calculus made Argonne and the other national labs special magnets for such foreign Ph.D.s—the number of private battery companies was small and with it the possibility of obtaining an H-1B visa. The national labs, on the other hand, could sponsor an unlimited number of H-1Bs—in 2000, Congress had created a working visa exemption for nonprofit, university, and national labs.
“They go an extra length. They’re smart. And they are extremely reliable,” Amine said. Why was his team predominantly Chinese? “That’s why,” he said. Amine said his strategy did not always work in his favor. He had lost numerous military contracts because the Pentagon permitted only American citizens to work on such sensitive projects, and his group lacked them. But he was straightening that out, too. Six years earlier, Amine himself had taken American citizenship. His two Moroccan researchers had as well, and a Chinese scientist was on his way. “I think within five years, all these Chinese will be U.S. citizens,” Amine said. “It’s just a matter of time.” Ultimately, Amine said, his personnel preferences were unimportant. “At Argonne, the policy is you hire people based on capability. Not nationality,” he said. Of course, Amine had determined that there was a difference—he was hiring according to nationality. It was among the reasons why an American victory in the battery race oddly depended on scientists from rival countries.
Government incentives were attracting increasing numbers of Chinese students to repatriate but this trend largely excluded the staff at Argonne. Of the lab’s foreign researchers, the Chinese were among the least likely to repatriate. The professional conditions in China were a disincentive, you could end up lost in a sprawling lab in your native country, serving an autocratic boss interested not in new ideas but largely in retaining his own position.
Argonne employed some 3,000 scientists but Amine was appalled at its relatively small intellectual property unit. The lab seemed content to file away strong inventions without seeking publicity. There was no explaining it apart from either a diffidence toward the business of science or plain languor. Whichever, Argonne’s IP team was passive when it came to licensing the lab’s inventions. So Amine set out to create his own little Japan. Amine organized his staff along the lines of the Kyoto invention machine where he learned his craft. He whipped his researchers into a cadre that at his direction worked systematically through every possible approach to the solution of a chemical puzzle—hundreds if necessary. The enviable record of papers, patents, and industry interest followed. Of one of his Chinese researchers, Amine said, “When you give him an experiment, he does it fast. He’ll give you the result in two days. With some people it’s like pulling teeth.” Amine’s critics pilloried his record of picking up a promising idea produced elsewhere, blending it with his own flashes of intuition and the work of his efficient staff, and emerging with a patent application or a new paper. They insinuated that it was theft. But in Japan—or any of the big Asian manufacturing economies—his methods would be recognized as fair and even sensible. Japan, China, and South Korea continued to retain their economic edge with a willingness to build on others’ ideas and spend money for years and years with the confidence that a profitable industry would eventually result. Amine was merely following the Japanese way. As critical as they were of him, Amine was savage toward the usual practices in American industry and labs. Western scientists championed the visionary moment but that led to “the moon or nothing. So they have nothing,” he said. He was prepared to go step by step. And he winnowed down his group to those who would work the way he saw fit.
That meant only two nationalities—Chinese and Moroccans. On its face, Amine’s hiring sounded racist. His management style was dictatorial. But Amine was neither unethical nor a bigot. Rather, he was opportunistic in noticing others’ advances, uncanny in identifying and resolving a flaw, and ruthless in cutting through to a product bearing his name. That made him no different from countless other successful Americans. Jun Lu, a researcher on futuristic lithium-air batteries, defended Amine’s Japanese notions. Jun and his wife, Temping Yu, who also worked at Argonne, had no relatives in the Chicago area. “So we have more time to focus on research. You work harder” on Amine’s team, he said, but that was only part of the picture. “If you want to be successful, you still have to have the ideas. You have to have common sense.” But there were also pockets of anger in Amine’s group. This was not Japan. Some members of his group did not appreciate serving as cogs in Amine’s machine rather than innovators and thinkers in their own right. Amine held out the coin of the realm—an American visa and the later hope of citizenship. Their names appeared on the papers to which their grunt work contributed. But some of Amine’s best staff bristled at
There was a divide between the Chinese and the rest of the battery department. The Americans were suspicious of the Chinese and also themselves insular. The old days of Argonne scientists hanging out at one another’s homes were long past—in 2011, five years after he joined the lab, Chamberlain had yet to throw a party. Almost none of the battery guys had ever been to his house. An administrative staff member’s ears perked up when her boss mentioned dinner plans with a colleague—it was the first time she had ever heard of lab executives socializing together. She could only speculate why so little entertaining went on. It wasn’t that the scientists were unfriendly. But there seemed to be an unspoken midwestern distance. Andy Jansen and Kevin Gallagher, both battery guys, threw backyard barbecues for department colleagues, but Asians were rarely present.
Kang moved to Chicago with a position on Khalil Amine’s team at double his Austin pay. It was not long before Kang felt like “a workhorse.” He was carrying out repetitive tasks in which Amine was attempting again and again to advance yet another theory that would produce yet another paper or patent “that doesn’t change anything.” The Moroccan traveled frequently but provided his subordinates no opportunity to attend the same international conferences, mix with peers, or make a name
Americans, Kang said, had more potential than almost anyone because they had the fundamentals—from childhood, they were trained to argue and discuss. But they, too, were handicapped: they were not desperate. “They are not prepared to lose everything.” At Argonne itself, senior scientists did too little to prepare their young subordinates for big future breakthroughs.
A typical way to express the economics of a battery was the cost to produce a steady 1,000 watts of electricity for an hour (the amount needed to iron your clothes, for instance). According to Kumar, the Envia cathode lessened the battery cost to $250 per kilowatt-hour at laboratory scale, less than half the prevailing market rate at the time it was built. Envia’s next product promised to shrink the cost further—to $200 per kilowatt-hour, a very large jump. The ultimate aim, if Kumar succeeded with a superbattery on which he was currently working, would be a phenomenal $180 per kilowatt-hour. Kumar told Nissan that he could reach that goal in eighteen or so months. His promises, not to mention the time line, were exceedingly bold seeing as how GM was thought to be currently spending $650 to $750 per kilowatt-hour on the battery in the Volt, for a total of $12,000 to $14,000. Dave Howell, head of the electric-car battery research effort at the Department of Energy, was challenging researchers to lower costs to $300 a kilowatt-hour by 2014 or 2015. His longer objective was $125 a kilowatt-hour by 2022. But Kumar was suggesting he needed a mere year and a half to cut battery costs by three quarters and bring down the Volt battery to around $3,000. Given those numbers, you could understand
The Obama administration had allotted about $2 billion to build six lithium-ion battery factories largely from scratch. No one could say how many would survive, but most had no intellectual property of their own. In Kumar’s view they ought to be eager to grab Envia’s battery material. But, hearing silence, he said, “I don’t think it’s my job to convince them. I am working to make a product.
Though it boosted GM’s image, the Volt did not actually sell well. The car cost $41,000 and most motorists were unimpressed by the 40 miles it could travel on a charge.
Studies showed that that was the maximum average distance that American motorists traveled in a day. But in practice, actual potential buyers wanted to pay less, drive farther, and charge up where and when they wanted. Until these benchmarks were met, most were not buying the Volt or any other electric vehicle.
As for Steven Chu, he felt like a member of the “chosen ones” when he joined Bell in 1978. The atmosphere was “electric,” and “the joy and excitement of doing science permeated the halls,” he said. Chu grew up on Long Island, the son of Chinese immigrants who expected their children to earn Ph.D.s. His maternal grandfather was an American-trained engineer. His father was an MIT-educated chemical engineer and his mother an economist. He earned his doctorate at Berkeley and was hired to stay on as an assistant professor, but before starting the job he was offered a leave of absence to broaden his experience and he used the time to go to work at Bell. Chu’s first Bell boss admonished him to be satisfied with nothing less than starting a new scientific field. Five years later, he was leading the lab’s quantum electronics research team. Among his first accomplishments was measuring the energy levels of positronium, an atomlike object with its electric charges flipped. Measurements were hard because positronium has an average lifetime of 125 picoseconds (125 trillionths of a second, a scale that is to a second as a second is to 31,700 years). Then Chu puzzled out how to use laser light to cool and trap atoms. “Life at Bell Labs, like Mary Poppins, was practically perfect in every way,” he said. As secretary of energy under Obama, Chu wanted to capture the magic of Bell and its peers, the great industrial labs that had been run by scientific and commercial visionaries like Thomas Edison and T. J. Watson. He wanted to assemble the best minds in one place and focus on a single mission. The objective would be to disrupt the largest industry on the planet—fossil fuels.
He himself could be an exacting boss. When he later was named director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he became known for his “Chu-namis,” stormy fits of pique when something had not been carried out to his standard. Chu wanted to replicate this atmosphere at the national labs that the Department of Energy funded.
One day, Jim Greenberger, an outside member of the group with which Chamberlain was speaking, mentioned a vague boyhood link to a close ally of Senator Obama, whose presidential campaign was gaining momentum. Obama seemed to be intensely interested in batteries. Why not pitch the battery Sematech proposal to the senator’s team? Everyone agreed that it was a good idea. The group found itself in a Chicago office before a single economic adviser to Obama. Greenberger described Sematech and the aim of beating the big Asian battery makers. “Why do you think we can compete with the Japanese auto industry?” the adviser asked. Chamberlain said American companies, while currently struggling, could recover and figure large in a reconstituted global industry. But he added that if electrics truly took off, Detroit, with its record of stodginess, “will go the way of the dinosaur.” They would not manage the transition to the new world. “What kind of money do you need?” The group had discussed this question. If they were modeling on Sematech, the sum should be around $500 million. But they wanted a cushion in case expenses were higher. So they decided on $1 billion. It was perhaps a hubristic price, but that was what they would request for the battery Sematech. “Two billion dollars,” Greenberger said. The rest of the group went quiet. Chamberlain could not see the expression on the Obama adviser’s face, and no one could fathom the origin of the new number.
“Okay,” the adviser said. Outside, the group laughed. Why did Greenberger double the figure? “I don’t know,” he said. “It just felt right.” As Obama was elected, the economic landscape transformed. The world was in financial collapse and the country in a panic. On taking office two months later, Obama quickly proposed, and Congress approved, a $787 billion economic stimulus package. It was meant to rescue the economy and plant the seeds of future industries. Chamberlain smiled as he studied the breakdown of spending. It included a $2.4 billion line item—a $2 billion lithium-ion battery manufacturing program plus $400 million for the development of electric-car–manufacturing processes. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s new chief of staff, had remarked that, politically speaking, no crisis should go to waste. The battery Sematech was a “go.” It was and it wasn’t. The money would fund the creation of an American lithium-ion battery industry, just as Chamberlain and the companies envisioned.
Only now, with the unexpected largesse of a $2.4 billion research-and-development fund, the companies changed their minds about working collaboratively. Johnson Controls received $249 million of the fund, EnerDel won $118 million, and $200 million went to A123. They would compete against one another for the market. There would be no battery Sematech—no industry-government consortium. But the United States would be in the battery game. Steven Chu also saw no reason to squander the crisis. In his case, there was the matter of his dream to recreate Bell Labs. He proposed eight projects, each tasked to solve a single big problem, at a total five-year cost of $1 billion. For those who did not grasp the significance, he said, “We are taking a page from America’s great industrial laboratories in their heyday.” On paper, they would be called “innovation hubs.” But more explicitly, they were “Bell Lablets.” One of Chu’s hubs was to be aimed at revolutionizing batteries.
As impressive as NMC 2.0 was compared with its predecessors, it couldn’t power an electric car competitively with the internal combustion engine. After accounting for the loss of energy in combustion, a kilogram of gasoline contains 1,600 watt-hours of stored energy. State-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries, by comparison, delivered about 140.
Thackeray’s goal for NMC 2.0 was to double current performance plus cut the cost. But even that would leave batteries still about a sixth the energy density of gasoline. The Battery Hub’s goal was to make the next big jump after lithium-ion—to 600 or 800 watt-hours a kilogram. Toward that goal, the Battery Hub would receive $25 million of federal funding a year for five years, $125 million in all. A competition would decide which university, national lab, or consortium would host the Hub. Chu advised that those interested stay tuned as to
John Newman, an electrochemistry professor at UC Berkeley, phoned Thackeray. Newman was an icon who had written the standard university textbook on electrochemical systems. “Why don’t you lead the Battery Hub and we’ll do it with you?” Newman said. The competition had not yet been announced, but Newman was suggesting an interesting head start. He wanted Argonne and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, traditionally bitter rivals in the battery space, to submit a joint bid. The approach was surprising given the jealousy between their two institutions. Argonne and Berkeley never worked together. They harbored a deep well of mutual suspicion. The stakes, however, were enormous—whoever landed the hub would be the undisputed center of American battery research. Therefore, if they joined hands, agreed to divide the research funds, and did not quarrel, Berkeley and Argonne might stand an improved chance of winning the competition. In June 2009, Newman traveled as part of a Berkeley group to Argonne. Crowded into a small conference room, they began to brainstorm what a Battery Hub would look like. So much was already going on in the field—depending on the year, the Department of Energy alone was spending $50 million to $90 million on battery research. What could a hub add? Someone suggested starting over—that they wipe the whiteboard clean and simply construct a chart of a first-rate, industry-leading battery research program. They could then shade in areas where there was already sufficient work. What remained would be the proposed Argonne-Berkeley Battery Hub. The result was a blockbuster, over-the-top plan for a $100-million-a-year, multiyear partnership of companies and scientific institutions. On paper, it was four times the size of Chu’s hubs. Both teams loved it. When Chamberlain described it quietly to a few industry friends, they seemed equally enthusiastic, making clear they were prepared in principle to share the cost fifty-fifty with the Department of Energy. Chamberlain thought he understood the companies’ eagerness. It wasn’t that it looked like Sematech, although the resemblance to Chamberlain’s obsession was more than passing. It was because “it was like Bell,” he said. Genuinely like Bell, and not the lablets that Chu was proposing. The Argonne-Berkeley team called it the National Center for Energy Storage Research, which they pronounced “En-Caesar.
Congress had to directly approve such spending, and it treated Chu’s proposal with skepticism. Its 2010 budget funded just three of the eight innovation hubs. Worse, it guaranteed the money for only a year rather than five and allocated $22 million for each hub instead of the proposed $25 million. The Battery Hub did not make the cut.
“Oh, crap,” Chamberlain said. He was reading a news bulletin on the Internet—a Chevy Volt had caught fire while undergoing federal crash testing in Wisconsin. The vehicle had been through the usual harsh examinations, which included ramming a pole into its side, and had already achieved the top five-star rating. Three weeks later, as the car sat on the lot, the battery burst into flames. It engulfed the Volt along with three other vehicles parked nearby.
Fox News blamed Obama. Neil Cavuto, a Fox commentator, said the Volt was part of a gigantic social disaster that would lead to divorces “when someone forgets to plug it in,” not to mention a conspiracy. “Someone bought off Motor Trend to say it was car of the year,” Cavuto said. “You have to be a dolt to buy a Volt.” The vehicle had nothing to do with Obama and in fact was conceived during the George W. Bush administration. But by embracing electrics, Obama infuriated the right. The carping grew when two more fires occurred during tests just six months later. The thing about large lithium-ion battery packs was that if you were not going to use them for a long time, you were advised to drain them of electricity. When fully charged, they could be unstable.
Chamberlain said that it wasn’t only his personal connection to the car that decided him. Notwithstanding the opinion of Fox News, he agreed with the assessment of Motor Trend, which was that the Volt was “a game-changer.” The Volt was the future, he said, “something that is amazing.”
Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries became commercial products only a decade later. When Sony commercialized Goodenough’s battery in 1991, it became the go-to formulation for virtually every laptop, smart phone, recorder, or really any battery-enabled consumer device. Goodenough’s batteries lasted longer than the technology they superseded—nickel metal hydride—and did not suffer nearly the severity of capacity loss after long use. Even two decades later, lithium-cobalt-oxide batteries remained the world’s workhorse consumer battery.
The inspiration to use lithium-ion to revive electric cars, though, came later still. Lithium-cobalt-oxide was too expensive—specifically the ingredient cobalt—for serious contemplation in passenger vehicles. It packed a wallop of energy density—the best among any commercial battery—but was economically feasible only for compact purposes, meaning small electronic devices. When Toyota pioneered the modern-day push into electrics in Japan in 1997, its Prius hybrid again contained nickel-metal-hydride batteries.
Riley received an e-mail from a 41-year-old South Korean staff researcher named Young-Il Jang. NMC 2.0, Young said, appeared to have a problem. And not just any problem, but one so substantial as to possibly doom it outright for use in cars. Young told Riley and other colleagues copied in the e-mail that the jolt of voltage that gave NMC 2.0 its potency also seemed to thermodynamically change it. When the high voltage forced much of the lithium to begin shuttling, thus removing the cathode’s pillars, the structure sought to shore itself up and keep its shape. Other atoms rearranged themselves. Nickel took the place of lithium, and cobalt of oxygen. When the lithium returned, its old places were occupied. It had to try to find a new home. Thermodynamics made the atoms seek a new natural balance. The voltage steadily declined. Hence in actual application in an automobile, NMC 2.0 might not provide the consistent potency suggested when Thackeray was working on coin-size test cells in the laboratory. Unless the atomic reorganization could be controlled, Young concluded, the material might never find use in a car, which required reliability. In a gasoline-driven vehicle, the driver expected the engine to deliver more or less the same propulsion each time the accelerator was depressed—the pistons had to push out a smooth flow of power continuously, every time. It could not deliver the acceleration of a Ferrari the first day and a Mini Cooper on the hundredth. Similarly, in an electric system, the voltage in the second cycle could not differ from that of the fiftieth; you could not create a dependable, ten-year propulsion system with such instability.
Riley was suggesting that the parade of companies that had paid to license NMC 2.0—not just Envia, but BASF, GM, LG, and Toda—were holding a seriously flawed product. As his researcher had stated, NMC 2.0 perhaps could not be deployed for the purpose for which it had been purchased—longer-range, cheaper electrified vehicles. At least in its current state, it perhaps could only be used at lesser voltages, which would mean performance not much different from the lithium-cobalt-oxide batteries commercialized two decades before. There might be no reason for anyone to absorb the expense of switching to NMC 2.0. If you asked the battery guys at what stage they understood that there was a problem with NMC 2.0, it prompted a nervous response. They would go quiet, glance around, and provide not quite precise answers. This conveyed the impression that either no one knew the precise answer or no one wanted to disclose it. The reason being that, if you looked at the situation squarely, you could not escape the conclusion that Argonne had in fact sold the companies a faulty invention. Not that the companies themselves were off the hook—the engineers, venture capitalists, and other executives and staff who had signed off on the licenses had to be in some hot water among their bosses, too. If anyone was predominantly responsible, it was the Thackeray team, because their names were on the patent. Chamberlain, who had led the negotiations on Argonne’s behalf, said simply, “We didn’t know about it.” But how was that possible? “Because making a product is not the scientists’ objective. You have to look at a certain data set to notice the fade,” he said. “If you look at a different data set where all of your requirements are for capacity, you can actually miss the voltage curves.” He added, “That is why interaction with industry is so important, because if you are making a product, like a battery that is going into a car, you look at everything like this.
Department of Energy staff summoned him to Washington. They wanted to hear more about voltage fade. A few days before his departure to Seoul, Kang sat before six Department of Energy officials with his slide deck. His core message resembled A123’s: NMC 2.0 required a fundamental fix. How did some of the best minds in batteries overlook a defect this basic? Voltage fade was deeply pernicious, Kang said. It was what Chamberlain said—if you were employing the standard measuring tools, determining a battery’s stability by checking its capacity, you would notice nothing wrong with the NMC 2.0. From cycle to cycle, you observed a stable composition. That is what Thackeray and Johnson saw and reported in their invention. Voltage fade became conspicuous only when you incorporated gauges of stability that, while familiar in industry, were highly uncommon in research labs. Only then did you understand that NMC 2.0 was profoundly flawed.
Further in the future, Faguy saw the problem as a dress rehearsal for nightmares to come. The battery race would involve a series of unforeseen, terrible problems that you simply could not recognize in the tiny volumes and coin cells produced in the national labs. You needed a ton of the material and hundreds of cells, and you had to charge and recharge them again and again before the problems surfaced. Only then could you think about the solutions necessary to get the technology into a car.
Croy said the slides assumed two ways to understand voltage fade: it was either repairable or forever unmanageable, the latter because of the immutable laws of thermodynamics, the most basic physics of energy. The answer, he said, was actually both—voltage fade challenged the limits of fundamental physics, but there could be a fix. To get there, he and Thackeray had used the beam line to explore the bowels of the NMC. They observed that the nickel and manganese had wanderlust. The metals liked to move around through the layers. It was their nature—once the lithium shuttled to the anode, taking a bit of oxygen out of the cathode, the nickel and manganese could not help but shift in order to find a new, comfortable balance. By the time the metals settled down, the material itself was changed—its voltage profile was vastly different. For a carmaker, such a transformation was unacceptable. But how could you stop it?
The extra manganese in NMC 2.0—the Li2MnO3—that was largely responsible for the battery’s exceptional performance also contributed to its instability. The manganese settled down and stopped rattling the structure when near nickel. So wherever you had manganese, you wanted to make sure nickel was also present. The flower pattern represented the best depiction of that balance.
In February 2012, about a thousand men and women assembled at an upscale Orlando golf resort called Champions Gate. There are two types of battery conferences—scientific gatherings that attract researchers and technologists attempting to create breakthroughs; and industry events, attended by merchants and salespeople. Orlando was the latter. A pall hung over the assembled businesspeople. Americans were not snapping up electric cars: GM sold just 7,671 Volts the previous year against a forecast of 10,000. There was no reasonable math that got you to the one million electric vehicles that Obama said would be navigating American roads by 2015, even when you threw in the Japanese-made Nissan Leaf, of which 9,674 were sold in 2011. That became even clearer when just 603 Volts sold in January 2012. No one seemed consoled that China was doing even worse, selling just a combined 8,159 across the country, fewer than half the American number.
There could eventually be the type of market shift that both Obama and Wan Gang had forecast. But it would not be in the current decade. Until at least the 2020s, electric cars would remain at best a niche product.
The Japanese believed the race was already over. They—and their Prius—had won. Toyota was nearing four million cumulative hybrid sales worldwide, including 136,463 Priuses in the United States alone—the world’s second-largest car market behind China—in 2011. The Japanese themselves bought 252,000 Priuses.
Researchers might achieve a genuine breakthrough in a decade or so, Anderman said. But meanwhile the internal combustion engine would keep improving and raising the bar.
The vice presidents of major industry players like GM, Ford, Bosch, and Nissan, the men who, one step down from the CEO, decided what cars their companies actually produced. They tended not to “put up with any crap,” Hillebrand said. “They are not interested in what sounds interesting and what sounds cool,” he said, but in “things that are really going to happen.” It became evident that they did not foresee a breakout of the electric car for many years to come. Electrics cost too much to produce. There was no indication that the economics were going to significantly improve. Motorists might keep buying 20,000 or 30,000 Leafs and Volts a year, they said, but there was no sign that either model would achieve the hundreds-of-thousands-of-cars-a-year sales that signaled mass appeal. The old guys were right, Hillebrand said.
He himself foresaw internal combustion vehicles that could run automatically on almost any fossil fuel. As it stood, mass-market diesel engines, relying on compression rather than spark plugs to ignite the fuel that drove the car, were probably the most efficient on the planet—fully 45% of the diesel poured into the tank ended up in the propulsion of the vehicle; just 55% burned off as wasted heat in the process of combustion. As for gasoline, just 18% of its energy actually reached the wheels; a whopping 82% went into the ether.
Consumer electronics typically wear out and require replacement every two or three years. They lock up, go on the fritz, and generally degrade. They are fragile when jostled or dropped and are often cheaper to replace than repair. If battery manufacturers and carmakers produced such mediocrity, they could be run out of business, sued for billions and perhaps even go to prison if anything catastrophic occurred. Automobiles have to last at least a decade and start every time. Their performance had to remain roughly the same throughout. They had to be safe while moving—or crashing—at high speed.
The generally accepted physical limit of a lithium-ion battery using a graphite anode was 280 watt-hours per kilogram. No one had ever created a 400-watt-hour-per-kilogram battery. In all, ARPA-E received some 3,700 submissions for $150 million in awards. Thirty-seven were selected. Envia was among them—Kumar won a $4 million grant.
The subsequent year, Kumar’s team worked through the handful of silicon anode concepts he had proposed until it settled on one. Kumar said Amine’s anode, a composite of silicon and graphene, pure carbon material the thickness of an atom, had failed to meet the necessary metrics. Instead, the best anode was made of silicon monoxide particles embedded into carbon. Kumar’s team built pores into this silicon-carbon combination measuring between 50 nanometers and 5 microns in diameter, and filled them with electrolyte. Carbon in the shape of fibers or nano-size tubes were also mixed into the anode, thus creating an electrically conductive network. The silicon’s expansion was thus redirected and absorbed. Even if the silicon broke apart immediately, the carbon fibers and tubes provided a path across which the lithium ions could pass on their way to and from the cathode. Kumar said the results were excellent
This path to the better battery was expensive. You started with a vacuum reactor and a costly substrate, sometimes using platinum, a precious metal. Then you grew nanowires and nanotubes. What resulted was like pixie dust—you derived just milligrams of material each time while what was required was bulk powder. The process might decline in cost over time, but for now it could not be justified. The battery was only a prototype—he had charged and discharged it just 300 times. Experts in the audience knew that Kumar would have to more than triple the number of cycles before the battery could be used in a car.
Dahn was notorious for ripping into the ideas of his colleagues—publicly and usually with precision. He pointed out flaws that most battery guys, knowing how hard it was to make an advance of any type, typically kept to themselves. Dahn was with Anderman in the belief that battery scientists often cherry-picked their results in order to postulate nonexistent advances.
The basic NMC-spinel battery in the GM Volt delivered about 100 watt-hours per kilogram. Since GM over-engineered the battery to maintain a margin for error, about 37% of it went unused—the excess was there just in case added capacity was needed. So it was effectively running at about 66 watt-hours per kilogram. If you now doubled the capacity using the Envia formulation and slimmed down the unused capacity, you would triple your range—rather than 40 miles, the Volt would travel more than 120 miles on a single charge. Alternatively, GM could stay with the 40-mile range and cut about $10,000 off the price of the car. “You have your choice,” Dahn said. “This is why people are fighting for higher energy and longer life. It is what it is all about.” Dahn had questions. For example, why Envia’s 300 cycles would increase. “How long and how fast? Nobody knows,” Dahn said. “But you can bet your bottom dollar it is going to get better.
Canadian energy thinker Vaclav Smil was his favorite writer, and Gates was a seed investor in a molten metal battery prototype invented by Donald Sadoway, a celebrity MIT chemist. Conversing with Chu, Gates said that clean power was perhaps the world’s greatest challenge. It would be exceptionally harder than anything he himself had attempted. Bill Gates said that when you contrasted energy and computer software, “people underestimate the difficulty getting the breakthroughs. And they underestimate how long it is going to take.” Crossing from the invention to the marketplace was the longest wait of all—the general adoption of a new energy technology could take five to six decades, he said. That’s right, Chu replied.
A photograph of Kumar and the Envia team went up on the triple screens. The day before, Majumdar said, this start-up company had announced “the world record in energy density of a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.” Its 400-watt-hour-per-kilogram battery, if scaled up, could take a car that entire Washington-to-New York journey in a single charge at half the cost of the current technology. And more was coming, he said.
At a major presentation Majumdar said that the Envia team had achieved “the world record in energy density of a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.” Its 400-watt-hour-per-kg battery when scaled up would take a car Washington to New York on a single charge at half the cost of current technology.
Envia claimed this could be done for hundreds of cycles, but in fact it went just 3 cycles before the energy plunged. To be usable in an electric car it would need to be capable of being charged and discharged 1,000 times.
The Argonne battery guys cringed and then went ballistic. Kevin Gallagher said Majumdar’s claims about Envia were “bullshit” and made him wonder about the other 8 start-ups showcased. ARPA-E with its pressures to deliver big leaps was “basically set up for companies to lie”.
Gallagher didn’t belive Envia could go 300 miles on a single charge—he would have had to densely pack the lithium into an unusually thick cathode. That was the only way. The problem was that thick electrodes were a blunt-force method—they could deliver the distance, BUT ONLY IN THE LAB. They couldn’t be placed with confidence into a 300-mile electric car. Being so fat, they would suffer early and fatal maladies and die long before the 10-year life span required and might even shatter. The opposite was needed – slender electrodes and cathodes less than 100 microns thick.
In the audience, the Argonne battery guys cringed. Then they went ballistic. Kevin Gallagher said Majumdar’s claims about Envia were “bullshit,” making him wonder about the other eight start-ups that he showcased. ARPA-E as a whole, with its pressures to deliver big leaps, was “basically set up for companies to lie,” he said.
Chamberlain said that deceit was in the DNA of start-ups and VCs: you needed that quality in order to raise funding, sell your product, and ultimately achieve a successful exit—to flip your company in either an acquisition or an IPO.
He decided that Majumdar’s high-profile announcement was politically driven. Department of Energy investments were a primary target of harsh Obama critics. The furor centered on Solyndra, a California solar power company that was awarded a $535 million stimulus loan and then filed for bankruptcy. Solyndra, critics said, exemplified the folly of “picking winners”—of favoring specific companies rather than general swaths of potential economic prosperity in which any enterprise might emerge a success. The loan, they said, was particularly suspect given that a Department of Energy official handling it was simultaneously a presidential campaign fund-raiser and married to a Solyndra lawyer. In fact, ARPA-E and other programs were picking winners. But that was what they were supposed to do. The question was whether they picked wisely. In any case, while the wisdom of the Solyndra loan was debatable, its origins were in the Bush administration.
Gallagher was still irritated about Envia. He did not desire a public argument over the matter but said again that Kumar’s 400-watt-hour-per-kilogram disclosure was just show. Gallagher was disposed to irritable pessimism—Thackeray said that was to be expected since he was an engineer. But he defended his suspicions on the basis of the girth of Kumar’s electrodes: in order to deliver the performance that Envia claimed—meaning that an electric car could travel three hundred miles on a single charge—he would have had to densely pack the lithium into an unusually thick cathode. That was the only way. The problem was that thick electrodes were a blunt-force method—they could deliver the distance, but only in the lab. They probably could not be placed with confidence into a three-hundred-mile electric car. Being so fat, they would suffer early and fatal maladies and die long before the ten-year life span required for such batteries. They might even shatter. The future, Gallagher said, was slender electrodes—cathodes less than one hundred microns thick, or slimmer than the diameter of a human hair. In its rush to the market, Gallagher said, Envia had unveiled an attention-grabbing but flawed product that still required fundamental improvement.
Lynn Trahey called Gallagher “K-Funk.” She had joined Argonne three years earlier as a postdoc from Berkeley. Scientists in the United States were not only largely foreign born, but also mostly men. So Trahey was an anomaly on both accounts—she was the only female staff scientist in the Battery Department. She had been a cheerleader and played varsity doubles tennis in high school. As a graduate student, she wore a purple- and green-dyed ponytail. Trahey’s current toned-down style appeared aimed at reducing her conspicuousness among these mostly plain men. She tied her hair back, unadorned. She dressed like one of the guys in loose-fitting jeans and sneakers.
None of it worked. Trahey still stuck out. The guys behaved bizarrely around her. They spoke inexpressively, almost robotically. Except for Gallagher and Mike Slater, a lot of them simply stayed away. While colleagues behaved awkwardly, she was ideal for public relations exercises. At Berkeley, her professors dispatched her on community-outreach visits to neighborhood schools and senior-citizen groups. She would show up and attract favorable press for the department. Chamberlain employed Trahey to the same advantage. He featured a photograph of her posed in protective glasses on the department’s home page and in a handful of press releases.
“Why don’t we get rid of the old people” at the lab? Gallagher said. “I’d like to see their output. I’ll bet it’s low.” He said that if you calculated the average age of the department’s researchers, you might be surprised as to how elderly the staff was as a whole. Gallagher and Trahey agreed that their older colleagues were costing too much money. Trahey said, “The reason there are so few jobs is these people won’t leave. These guys suck up all this money that could go to other things.” It particularly galled her that Gruen was paid at the lab’s top salary rank. “He is a 710!” she said. Such grousing poured out of the pair. They suggested that battery science was a young person’s game. But were the ideas developed by over-the-hill scientists under scrutiny, or was it simply their ages?
One reason battery science didn’t produce results was that scientists proposed a new chemistry, got funding, proved or failed to make it work in coin cells, wrote a paper, garnered any accolades, and moved onto the next thing. The small coin cells were never tested for practicality. At no point was your idea typically tested for practicality—no one checked whether it could produce a superior battery. Experimentation alone was the final product.
Elon Musk’s Tesla made no battery breakthrough at all – he just strung together existing battery technology – 8,000 batteries made by Panasonic weighing 1,300 pounds. He chose this battery based on price, it was cheapest based on kilowatt-hour.
The Argonne scientists disputed the wisdom of Musk’s choice because nickel-cobalt-aluminum was the most volatile of the lithium-ion chemistries and easily caught on fire. If a pure lithium node could be made that didn’t catch on fire, it was be a colossal achievement and great recognition to anyone who could figure out how to do this.
Another thing Kumar at Envia needed to fix was DC resistance in the cathode, which made the car suddenly sluggish when it got to the last 20 miles of a 100 to 200 mile battery.
Envia’s 400 watt-hour per kilogram – not doing that by a long shot. They did on the 2nd cycle, but by 5th cycle it was down to 302, the 100th cycle 267, the 200th cycle 249, and by the 342nd cycle of 232 it had lost 42% of its energy.
The GM team didn’t even get 2 cycles at 400. GM insisted that Envia get 4.4 volts – but at that state of charge, atoms begin to move around at an accelerated pace, the cathode expanded and contracted with shuttling of lithium and the material could crack.
Envia had contracted with GM and had again missed the milestones on both the volt and 200 mile car batteries. The 400-2att-hour-per-kg material was still not performing as advertised.
The GM men were furious. “The anode material is not Envia’s,” said Matthus Joshua, the automaker’s purchasing executive. Envia had “misrepresented the material. The product claims prior to the contract were inaccurate and misleading.”
The anode was represented as proprietary but was actually bought from a 3rd party. After Envia admitted it had misrepresented the composition, origin and intellectual property content of their prototype battery, they asked for additional time and still the project hadn’t moved forward, and was unable to even replicate prior reported test results. Given the facts GM was entitled to terminate the contract and wanted back the $4 million it had paid out.
Was Kumar a con man? Was he looking to cash out before he was found out? The Argonne guys–all of them skeptics from the time that Kumar began to boast about his big breakthrough–could not decide.
Nor were journalists educated enough in battery technology to catch the problems with Kumar’s technology, even though slides were shown by Kumar and Kapadia at an ARPA-E Summit, though many of the slides were extremely deceptive (see page 277-278 for details). These slides depicted only the capacity giving the impression that the energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogramp was being achieved for hundreds of cycles, even though the energy density was going haywire.
Despite this, the board of investors and executives kept quiet hoping that Kumar would somehow still improve the battery enough so they could cash out. GM did too since there was no profit in going public with a fiasco and discredit the Volt and GM’s ability to develop new technology, plus Wall street might pummel the stock.
When the Envia board refused to depart, a 52-page civil suit was filed in the Alameda county courthouse against Envia and Kumar personally that alleged fraud and other charges, a lawsuit that revealed many of the past 6 years of corporate secrets, and all hopes of keeping the sorry story under wraps was blown.
Faguy at the Department of Energy realized that the problem of voltage fade couldn’t be solved simply by throwing money at it. “These kind of problems are intractable.”