In Search of Higher-Energy-Content Batteries

LG Chem Power Inc. CEO Denise Gray talks next-gen batteries during the 'Leaders Debate' session of the 2016 Battery Show. (Smarter Shows photo)

As suppliers, automakers, and others join forces to develop high-performance battery components aimed at increasing the range of electric vehicles, current advanced batteries are edging closer to the end of their electrified vehicle lifespan.

The Battery Show conference's 'Leaders Debate' session featured (left to right) panel moderator, NAATBatt International's Jim Greenberger, LG Chem Power Inc.'s Denise Gray; U.S. Energy Department's ARPA-E's Dr. Paul Albertus; X-Battery Group's Dr. Ramesh Bhardwaj; and Pacific Gas and Electric Company's Dave Meisel. (Smarter Shows photo)

“We’ve been very fortunate with almost 500,000 vehicles on the road that we haven’t gotten a lot of those advanced batteries back yet. But there will be batteries coming out of service. And as technologists, as automakers, and as suppliers, we have an obligation to think through how we might use them, recognizing that the new ones cost half of what the old ones did,” said Denise Gray, CEO of LG Chem Power, Inc.

Even with substantially decreased capacity these lifespan-limited powertrain batteries still have energy, so a secondary life is possible. “You just can’t put them in a landfill,” Gray asserted, stressing industry collaboration is the best path to battery re-use.

Gray and other executives talked on assorted battery topics during a ‘Leaders Debate’ plenary session during the 2016 Battery Show North America in Novi, MI.

The experts forecast that in the next decade, electrified vehicle batteries could be using solid ion conductors that would enable the creation of batteries with more than 30% higher energy content than today’s packs.

IONICS technology progress

Solid conductors with high ionic conductivity and other desired attributes would be a major innovation breakthrough, likely replacing today’s conventional liquid electrolytes. The IONICS (Integration and Optimization of Novel Ion Conducting Solids) initiative aims to help bring solid ion conductors and other innovations to commercialization.

Dr. Paul Albertus, Program Director for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), said the agency recently awarded $37 million for 16 new IONICS projects, whose targeted goals also include a pathway to produce battery packs at below $125 per kW·h, considerably less than today.

Focus areas for these academic, small business, and national lab IONICS projects include developing lithium conductors that can enable the cycling of lithium metal without short circuits or battery degradation; replacing today’s graphite anode with a lithium metal anode and developing a solid separator not made from polycrystalline ceramics.

“We want to develop a solid separator with an amorous glass structure that has a thickness of less than 20 microns,” said Albertus, admitting that will be difficult to achieve for an inorganic material and at a targeted price of $10 per square meter. “One vision of how this could work is to leverage some of the glass processing technologies that are used to make thin flexible displays,” he said.

Li-S batteries by 2020?

Lithium sulfur and lithium metal have crucial roles in the IONICS initiative.

“In the lithium metal portion of the program, the goal is to develop higher-energy-density lithium batteries that would reduce mass, volume and cost, leading to longer range electric vehicles. So we’re working to get lithium metal out-of-the-lab and onto a clear commercialization pathway with a core cell technology that would be relevant for automakers,” Albertus told Automotive Engineering.

According to Dr. Ramesh Bhardwaj, Director of the X-Battery Group of Google parent Alphabet, today’s battery materials are cost-heavy. “Li-S or lithium metal batteries with the potential of 350 to 400 W·h/kg are needed to reduce the cost of electric vehicles,” said Bhardwaj. He noted that the mass production of Li-S batteries is possible in the next three to five years.

“Sulfur is the cheapest material, and it’s also a raw material that comes from the oil industry. So if you can use sulfur to make batteries, then we can reduce the cost. However, the biggest challenge is it doesn’t cycle very well,” Bhardwaj said.

Gray of LG Chem pointed out that in recent years there has been a steady progression with battery systems overcoming assorted technical challenges.

“Take a look at where the technology has been and where it’s going. It’s not just because of the work that we’re doing within our company," she said. "It really is working collectively with our OEM partners and with universities and governments in the U.S. and around the world to keep pushing the technology forward.”