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A prototype of a flexible battery from Imprint Energy, one of 40 companies working on battery technology in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Imprint Energy)

Electric Cars Drive Demand For Cheaper, More Powerful Batteries

by Lauren Sommer
Nov 14, 2013 (All Things Considered / KQED Public Media)

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If there's one person you'd expect to have an electric car, it's Venkat Srinivasan. He's in charge of battery research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

"I'm actually in the market for a new car and would love to buy an electric car," he says. "But there are practical problems."

Srinivasan is driving around the lab's campus in a mini-electric car, sort of like a golf cart. But there aren't many full-size versions that would work for his daily 70-mile commute. The Nissan Leaf goes about 75 miles before it needs charging. Tesla's sedan can go 300 miles, but it's pricey.

"What we want to do is get cars that go 200 miles, but you can buy them for the cost of, say, a Toyota Corolla or Toyota Camry," Srinivasan says. "Where we are today in battery technology, we need a lot more work before we can get there."

Lithium-ion batteries — the ones in today's electric cars and cellphones — have come a long way in the past 20 years, packing twice as much energy in the same amount of space.

But compared to semiconductors, Srinivasan says, "that evolution is very, very slow" — computer chips have doubled in speed every 18 months.

Srinivasan says lithium-ion batteries have improved about as much as they can. What's needed is a whole new technology.

The Time Investment

Christine Ho, co-founder of Imprint Energy in Alameda, Calif., shows me a battery that's the size of a postage stamp. It's paper-thin and bendable.

"A lot of our customers, and I think just consumers in general, they just want things to be thinner," she says.

Lithium-ion batteries don't perform well when they're paper-thin, so Ho came up with a new type of battery chemistry using zinc. Ho says her battery could show up in laptops, electric cars and, because it's flexible, wearable electronics like a cellphone on your wrist.

Imprint Energy is one of 40 companies working on battery technology in the Bay Area. Many are startups that have tapped into millions of dollars of Silicon Valley venture capital.

But building hardware takes longer than building software, Ho says — and software is what Silicon Valley is used to.

"The investment community has really had a challenge with how long it takes for these technologies to be mature enough that they'll be accepted," she says.

But the potential payoff is so large that big corporations are also getting in the game.

At IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., Bryan McCloskey holds up a test battery that has two little tubes sticking out of it.

"You're feeding a gas into your battery on one side," he says. "This gas just happens to be air, ambient air."

Today's batteries produce energy through self-contained chemical reactions, but IBM's battery would use oxygen from the air. That makes it smaller and more powerful.

McCloskey says it could take a decade to develop, but IBM is hoping the battery will take cars 500 miles on a single charge.

"If you could envision powering every single car in America with a battery that has IBM stamped on the side of it, that has a huge market," he says.

An International Battery Race

But there's tough competition in the market from other countries like China, South Korea and Japan. Two U.S. battery companies have already folded, and they had the help of federal grants from the Department of Energy.

The agency has put $2 billion into battery development, including a national research hub that's working with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Srinivasan says its goal is a "moon shot": to make a battery that holds five times more energy at one-fifth of the cost — within the next five years.

He says the key is getting the technology into the hands of U.S. companies quickly.

"What we're trying to do here in the long term is trying to find a way to create a battery industry in the United States," he says. "Today in the United States, we don't do much battery manufacturing, and so we've lost all those jobs."

San Jose State University is launching a battery curriculum to train workers for those new jobs. Classes begin in the spring.

Copyright 2014 KQED Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.

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