A recent study revealed that the average battery life of a phone is only lasting 2-3 years. While new innovations in phones have more and bigger batteries, it’s still not enough to keep up with consumers’ increasing demand for our devices. This trend has led scientists around the world scrambling to find better ways of powering these devices, including an Australian scientist who believes he may be on his way towards creating a miracle fusion reactor which will last forever – without any input from humans!
The “leaders in battery technology” are not all the same. In fact, one scientist has seen it all. This scientist is Dr. James Tour of the University of Michigan and he is leading the way in battery innovation.
The United States provided a lot of the technology for the batteries that power electric cars and cellphones. The majority of batteries are created by Asian businesses utilizing Chinese components.
Susan Babinec is attempting to reclaim the lead in the field of batteries for the United States. She has worked as a renowned battery scientist in the United States for more than 20 years and thinks that cutting-edge research will help her achieve her goal.
“Everyone understands what’s at risk,” Ms. Babinec added. “We’re playing to the strength of the United States” as batteries get more advanced. We’re a team of badass scientists.”
Ms. Babinec has been a pivotal figure in the growth, decline, and resurgence of the American battery industry. Ms. Babinec, who is now the director of battery research and development at Argonne National Laboratory north of Chicago, has more than 50 patents. She has worked for the federal government, the most well-known failed battery company, and Dow Chemical, a chemical powerhouse.
The move away from fossil fuels has prompted a competition throughout the world to enhance battery technology. Better batteries would expand the range of electric vehicles and make charging more efficient. They would let solar and wind power to continue to power the grid after the wind has died and the sun has set.
In a dry room, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, create prototype electrodes and cells.
In the field of batteries, the United States has fallen far behind. According to Wood Mackenzie, China produces 79 percent of lithium-ion batteries, compared to 7 percent in the United States and 7 percent in Europe. According to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, which follows the battery supply chain, China manufactures around 80% of the chemicals needed in lithium-ion batteries.
The Biden administration is working with private investors to change that. They’re investing in battery businesses, building lithium mines in the United States, and seeking to reduce the cost of batteries for the electric grid by 90% within a decade.
Ms. Babinec’s first brush with electricity came when she was a youngster and accidentally inserted a pair of scissors in a lamp socket. She was knocked out for a few moments and awakened on the opposite side of the room. She was unharmed despite blacking out her residence.
She joined Dow Chemical in 1979 after getting a chemistry degree from the University of Wisconsin, and in 1998 she became the company’s first female corporate fellow, the company’s highest level scientist. She also obtained expertise building new firms while working with Dow’s venture capital department.
Dow executives urged her to put out an energy plan. She settled on batteries right away, thinking it would be an excellent match for a large chemicals and materials company. “I realized that it was going to be a big materials play,” she said, “and Dow was a materials firm.”
At Argonne, battery design experiments are carried out on a small scale in controlled conditions.
Laptops and smartphones were driving up demand. Soon after, Argonne researchers filed a patent application for what would become one of the most popular forms of lithium ion batteries. Money started pouring into battery start-ups.
Ms. Babinec urged Dow to buy T/J Technologies, an alternative energy business that specialized in nanomaterials. The transaction was passed up by Dow in favor of A123 Systems, a hot battery startup.
She joined A123 in 2007 after becoming frustrated with Dow’s glacial pace of development. Ms. Babinec loved working at the company’s Ann Arbor, Mich., research center because of the startup’s laid-back atmosphere. A pipe burst on her second day on the job, and she assisted with the repair. “I would have had to contact the union if I was at Dow, and it would have taken weeks to resolve,” she added.
“”We’re playing to the strengths of the United States. We’re a team of badass scientists.””
— Argonne National Laboratory’s Susan Babinec
A123 has had a streak of misfortunes. Despite the emergence of Tesla Inc., electric cars have failed to take off in the United States, and battery technology has progressed more slowly than projected. A flaw in one of the company’s batteries was discovered, resulting in a recall and millions of dollars in damages. Ms. Babinec’s team worked out what was wrong. “That was a day I’ll never forget,” she added.
In 2012, the firm went bankrupt, and Ms. Babinec was laid off for a while. It was the start of a years-long funding drought for clean-energy initiatives in the United States. Investor excitement for renewable energy was sapped by the high-profile failure of solar company Solyndra in 2011 and dirt-cheap natural-gas prices, which weakened the urgency to move away from fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the Chinese government pushed for the development of batteries and the elements used in them, such as cobalt and lithium.
Ms. Babinec joined the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, about a month after A123 collapsed. ARPA-E, which is modeled after the Pentagon’s research arm, finances early-stage innovation ventures. During her six-year tenure, Ms. Babinec helped allocate $120 million to a variety of battery startups, despite a lack of private capital.
Lithium prices are growing as demand for the essential component in electric vehicle batteries climbs, as part of a larger effort to diversify away from oil and gas. However, the process of extracting the metal is time-consuming and possibly detrimental to the environment, and proposals to manufacture more have sparked opposition. Oliver Bunic/AFP/Getty Images, STR/Getty Images
Natron Energy, which is developing a rechargeable battery that uses abundant sodium rather than lithium, which is harder to come by; Sila Nanotechnologies Inc., a Silicon Valley startup that raised $590 million in new funding in January 2021; and Ion Storage Systems, a developer of so-called solid-state batteries that can last longer than today’s standard technology, are among the battery companies Ms. Babinec helped fund.
Ms. Babinec’s knowledge in business was beneficial to scientists who had limited experience outside of the lab. When he did an experiment on his battery materials, she had him do it two more times with greater accuracy before she was happy, according to Eric Wachsman, a chemistry professor at the University of Maryland and the inventor of Ion Storage Systems. He described her as a taskmaster.
Beginning in 2023, Ion Storage aims to create more than one million cellphone-size batteries per year from its Maryland plant. The business has a contract with the US Army to research batteries, and it plans to produce an electric car battery in a few years.
The huge Advanced Photon Source at Argonne houses X-ray beams that scan all places in a battery from the outside.
Ms. Babinec left ARPA-E in 2018 to join Argonne National Laboratory, where she is now the director of the stationary energy storage program, which includes a focus on long-duration batteries. Enrico Fermi worked on nuclear reactions for the Manhattan Project in the Chicago lab where Argonne is based.
Long-duration batteries, which are sometimes huge in size, collect the intermittent energy produced by windmills and solar panels. They may provide energy over long periods of time, such as many days, as needed by clients. Lithium-ion batteries, on the other hand, have a maximum discharge time of four to five hours. Much of the technology is still costly and untested on a wide scale, yet without it, a renewable-energy-powered electric grid is unachievable.
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The Advanced Photon Source, a large high-energy X-ray instrument that allows scientists to peek into batteries while they work, is a hidden weapon for Argonne researchers. The gadget can aid in the discovery of novel chemical combinations that will improve the performance of batteries. According to Argonne experts, a current improvement that will be finished in the next several years will make it 500 times brighter.
Ms. Babinec pointed to a machine methodically covering a copper plate with a thin slurry of graphite, a critical lithium-ion battery ingredient, inside a hermetically sealed chamber deep inside Argonne’s huge laboratory complex last summer.
Ms. Babinec reflected on the failure of A123 and said that the procedure has to be flawless. “You can kill a firm” if you don’t, she said.
Scott Patterson can be reached at [email protected]
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