Monday, October 12, 2015

How many watch batteries does it take to drive a car?

Apparently the Apple watch has a battery in it. What the what! And here I thought that crown thingy was for winding the little sucker.  That was one embarrassing scene at the Apple store when I tried to pull the crown (on the gold one, no less) to wind it.  Skeuomorphism much.   

Jokes aside, when iFixit opened up the watch, I was fully expecting it to be 90% battery.  Surprisingly it is not.   It only occupies 50% of the space (all us battery types are the glass-half-full kind).  Obviously a smaller battery would help make this into a little less of a hulk on the wrist, but clearly Apple has made a compromise: balancing bulk, functionality, and battery life. 

We have come to expect nothing but less from our battery (!).  But why can’t the electronics guys figure out how to shrink the taptic engine, the chips, etc.  We need to get them to pull their weight. 

More than the actual volume of the cell (or the capacity) the energy density tells a more interesting story. The apple watch has an energy density of 450 Wh/l, while typical cell phone energy density is approaching 650 Wh/l.  A whooping 40% more: imagine how many more twitter messages you can get before you have to recharge the watch if they had incorporated the better battery. 

So what gives?

In any battery, the packaging takes up significant space and adds unwanted weight.  You need tabs to pull the current out; you need a pouch made of plastic with embedded metal to keep the battery in (and you so want the battery to stay in, especially when you know what goes into them!) and the moisture, oxygen etc. out.  The pouch has to be sealed and so you have a seal line that adds volume, and so on and so forth. 

As the size gets smaller, it is harder and harder to keep the ratio of the packaging to that of the actual active ingredients in the battery the same.  Meaning, there is a critical size below which one cannot get a proper seal, there is a thickness of the pouch below which one cannot guarantee that they will be impervious.  All this leads to a bigger and bigger fraction going toward the packaging, as the battery gets smaller.  Ergo, lower energy density. 

This is kind-of sort-of the problem I was talking about in my post titled “In batteries, 2+2=1. Actually more like 1/2. Well... maybe a bit less.”  In that post I was referring to the problem of needing extra weight and volume for the current collectors, separators etc., the penalty this imposes, and the difficulty of dramatically improving the energy density of batteries using new materials.  But the same issue comes to play when you go to smaller devices with the packaging being the driver. 

Now imagine going down in size even further, to, say, a contact-lens glucose-sensor that Google (or is it Alphabet now?) is developing.  How does one integrate a typical battery into that?  (make an eye patch and go for the pirate look?)

Which is why Google is going for some sort of wireless power delivery. 

As we start moving toward the world of ubiquitous sensing, the internet of things, and the “quantified self” (and other buzz words that I may have forgotten) where we will measure, and broadcast, how many times we cough in a day, what germs we eject when we do, how many of our neighbors are infected by those germs, and when and where the CDC should come pick us up when the germs reach epidemic proportions, the problem of smaller batteries with more energy density is only going to get more serious. 

So how can we change this? 

Clearly we need to think about other form-factors and chemistries that don’t have the same strong dependence of size on energy density.  Thin film and solid state are buzzwords you probably have heard.  These could be applicable.  One can imagine thinner packaging materials, encapsulated cells versus cells with thick seal lines, stacked cells versus jellyrolls etc.  There are few ideas like that out there that look interesting.  But they are still in early stages and a lot of data is needed for them to be proven out.  This area is ripe for innovation and we are going to see some cool things in the next 2-5 years. 

The problem is that what we see is typically an one-off demonstration that show that one can make a small device, but there is no way to know if they can be mass-manufactured at a scale where they will have an impact and at a cost that someone will be willing to pay for it. 

Solid-state batteries have been around for decades.  But they have never been cost effective to manufacture using the expensive deposition techniques that only make sense as a demonstration of what is possible.  The capex would be massive and the yield unproven.  Not a good sign for a mass-market product like a watch. 

Which brings me to the next interesting aspect about the Apple Watch: the cost. 

No. Not the cost of the gold one (although, the one on display at the Stoneridge Mall with the slightly deformed crown may be available on the cheap). 

We can all agree that when it comes to Apple, cost and price are two very different things.  There have been teardowns of the Apple Watch that suggest that it costs $84 to make.  Others disagree, and argue that for new technologies the cost will be higher.  I don’t have a view one way or another. 

The cost of the battery in the watch, according to these teardowns, is 80 cents.  Yes, you read that right, 80 cents!  (Except for the gold watch where the whole battery is made of gold?  Incidentally, turns out that gold can be used as an expensive, and pretty bad, anode material.)

The energy of the 38 mm watch is 0.78 Wh.  At a cost of $0.80 a pop this comes to a $1000/kWh battery.  Kind of expensive compared to most cell phone batteries, but inline with what one would expect for these small devices made for a niche low-volume application. 

And oh boy!  Are those volumes low!  Rumor has it that Apple sold 3 million watches in 3 months.  Even assuming all of these are the large 42 mm with a 0.94 Wh battery, this is a total of 2800 kWh.  Which would be 33 Tesla Model S, 85kWh cars.   

Sold.  Over.  Three.  Months.   

For comparison Tesla sells 2000 cars a month.  If you work for a battery supplier, which one would you rather sell to?

Turns out, probably to Apple.   

Wait, what?

Ok.  I would much rather have the volumes of Tesla.  Or sell to the MWh grid scale installations that are popping up everywhere (I use the word “everywhere” rather generously).  But when you are selling something that big (read, expensive) margins are going to be pretty thin.  At $350/kWh for an 85 kWh battery, the Tesla battery probably costs $30k.  How much more can a battery company charge? 

But at $.80 per watch, one can afford to ask for a bit more money for something that has, say, much higher energy density.  What is an extra dollar or two between friends when you are shelling out $500 on a timepiece? (or, if you are like me, $10k).

This is the advantage of going after a market where the total cost is small and the margins high.  It provides a path of first entry to the market.   But the scale dwarfs in comparison to the EV or the grid market. 

So can one make an amazing new battery for the watch that has, say, three times the energy even if it costs thrice as much and then slowly make the size larger and larger till one day it drives our cars?


After all, the Li-ion batteries powering every electrified car and most of the recently announced grid installations all started as small consumer electronic cells.  Companies learnt how to make them more reliable, get tighter tolerances, and make them safer so that one day, after 15 years, they were able to move them to vehicles. 

Took a long time, but it did happen.  So there is hope that some new idea would first get implemented in small devices, but would cost more.  In time, the cost will come down and the larger markets, which are more price-sensitive, would become accessible.  Maybe…

Or… one can borrow a page from Tesla, string a bunch of watch batteries together and make an electric car battery with it.  Instead of eight thousand 18650 cells, all one needs to do is take 10 times that number.

Feel free to run with that idea.  I won’t even ask for credit. 


P.S.  My ardent followers (all seven of them) have, for a long time, expressed their overwhelming desire (!) for me to get on Twitter.  Well, ask and you shall receive.  Join me on Twitter on Thursday, October 22nd, at 10 a.m. PT when I will talk about the future of batteries for EVs & grid storage.  I think this would be described as a Twitter chat.  The hashtag is #BattChat 

Monday, October 5, 2015

A boom. Then a bust. And now, a new equilibrium?

The title of this post could very well apply to my enthusiasm for blogging (although it really is meant to reflect the state of the battery industry). 

The last time I made regular posts (I’m not counting the one-off posts in the last couple of years) was in May 2012.  In the meantime, a lot has happened in the world of batteries.  But I have not been writing about them.  Early last year, I noticed that I was unable to even access this site and it was auto forwarding to a different website (and no, the website it was directing to was not really that exciting!).  Apparently one of the widgets (like Digg, or equivalent) had been compromised and was taking over the site.  Welcome to the problem of monetization on the web and the unsavory practices it promotes.   

I had a personal reason for the lack of activity on this blog.  We had a kid in August 2012 and my weekends were spent trying to design a battery-powered diaper-changing robot rather than writing.  But the timing coincided with the precipitous drop in cleantech after the boom in the 1st decade of this century.   All of cleantech was taking a beating; deal flow was nonexistent; and the whole startup scene in cleantech appeared to be dying.  

I was fully expecting battery startups to collapse and the whole sector to take a beating.   Some of this did happen: a few companies went under; few others cut back (and continue to do so); all of them started conserving cash.  I was fully expecting the interest in batteries to go back to pre-boom times.  This blog was not meant to be a spot for rumors and news, so what does one write about?

Surprisingly (!), I have been wrong.  

Folks are still starting companies.  Some are bootstrapping; others are getting small investments.  Series B and C investments are still happening, although valuation are probably not be where they were in 2010.   I don’t have any hard numbers, but I seem to hear about a new company every few weeks or so.  Anecdotally (and surprisingly), it does appear that there is growing activity in batteries.

The last battery boom was fuelled, in part, by the hope of replicating an A123: “If A123 can make a product and get a contract with an OEM in a few years, maybe we can do that too”.  Now we know that it takes thrice as long, and three times as much as we all thought (how we can accelerate this will be the subject of a future post).  So, what is driving the renewed interest?

This aspect requires exploration.   

On the other hand, these are interesting times indeed in the world of batteries. Tesla’s gigafactory promises to decrease cost of Li-ion batteries to less than $200/kWh over the next few years.  There have been claims that the costs could go down even further.  In a blog titled “One battery chemistry to rule them all” I argued that there is no winning chemistry.  For cars, I argued that Li-ion will win, but the specific chemistry is far from clear. For grid storage I argued that the time of discharge was so varied that it was pretty much impossible to predict which chemistry would win. 

Here is a quote from that article “Each chemistry has its pros and cons. There are four criteria one looks for in a battery: Cost, life, performance, and safety. No one chemistry is the magic bullet that satisfies all these criteria. Each choice leads to a compromise. As of today, it appears hard to predict the winner.”

That was 2010.  This is now.  How things have changed!

Li-ion has gotten cheaper and will get cheaper in time.  Tesla’s play is going to force all the other companies to also embark on vertical integration.  In commoditized markets like energy, cost is the main driver.  Of the four criteria, cost ends up being THE important one.  And the one who holds the cost advantage is well poised to be a winner. 

How does a non-Li-ion battery company survive in times like this?  Would they ever get the scale up to the point where their cost would compete with the big Li-ion players? Who would fund these companies to reach that scale?  Would Li-ion become the silicon solar cells equivalent, killing all other chemistries? What is the floor on Li-ion battery costs?  Would the vertical integration exclude some classes of Li-ion favoring others?  Would the locked-in investment in a certain form factor of batteries relegate newer (possibly better) designs to the sidelines?

This aspect also requires exploration. 

But the cost reduction from the big players, and the promise of the bit less than $200/kWh battery is not enough.  Cost targets for a 200-mile electric cars stand at $125/kWh for mass commercialization.  My gas-powered Subaru goes almost 400 miles on a tank.  If we decide EV’s need to have the same range, then the cost has to be even lower.  We probably do need these batteries to last 15 years as opposed to the 7-8 years that they are expected to last.  And would we ever find ourselves (in some distant future) charging our batteries in a few minutes as opposed to hours? 

Everyone says that we need batteries at $100/kWh for the grid.  Some have argued that this is not enough.  I have seen numbers that suggest that we need to be at $50/kWh if we want to cut the (electric) cord and use solar generation and battery storage and be at cost parity with the grid electricity.  And do we really want to replace our battery every 8 years?  And how big a Li-ion battery is one willing to put in ones home?  When I see PR announcements on behind-the-meter residential storage batteries, the battery guy in me knows that I would not want a significant fire-hazard adjacent to the walls of my house!  

From a pure technology perspective, the multitude of chemistries has a place in this evolving world.  Flow batteries do make sense, in long discharge-time applications.  Advanced lead-acid may very well be the ultimate chemistry, if we can solve the cycle life issues.  Other aqueous systems could all provide cheaper, safer alternatives to Li-ion, if we can spend time and resources (as we did with Li-ion) to get them to meet their potential.  The next generation of Li-based systems and non Li-based systems may very well be needed for the next jump in cost to occur. 

In most battery people’s minds there is a roadmap (akin to that in semiconductors) on the future generation of batteries.  Today we have Li-ion, then we would move to the advanced version’s of it with newer anodes and higher voltage cathodes, then onto the metal-based anodes allowing next generation cathodes to come in and so on.  This is the roadmap that the big players will follow.  But we also need to think about enabling disruption and changes to this roadmap that allow leapfrog innovations. 

This needs careful thinking. 

When I first started this blog (on Feb 9, 2010), there was so much activity (and noise) in batteries that I felt that there needed to be a forum to talk about it and set the record straight.  I had thought that, after the bust, the need was gone.  Clearly that is not true.  There is a need to talk about the lessons learnt from the last boom-bust cycle, the changing landscape, the roadmap for development of new batteries, the market drivers and challenges etc. 

TWiB is an ideal forum to have this conversation and so I have decided to bring it back to life.  I need to think about a sustainable way to do that, so that my busy schedule (you will be amazed at the number of Netflix shows I need to catch up on) does not stop activity on this site.  There is great stuff on the web on batteries and cleantech, but I can’t find anything that has the kind of close juxtaposition of technology and market analysis that TWiB brings.  And I’m a lot more entertaining (?) to read. 

So stay tuned. 


p.s.  All these topics would be discussed at the 2015 Bay Area Battery Summit on Nov 3 2015.  Click here for details

Friday, October 2, 2015

2015 Bay Area Battery Summit

Folks:  As you all know, these are very interesting times in the landscape of energy storage.  Batteries are getting cheaper, and promise to continue to drop as vertical integration becomes more common.  We are seeing more EVs on the road and stationary storage, both on the grid and behind the meter, is starting to become part of our conversation.  But we still need better technologies.  Can we get batteries to last 25 years?  Can we make them more energetic so that we recharge them less frequently?  Can we get them to charge in 15 minutes? 
These are important questions however, technology is only part of the solution.  The business climate is changing rapidly.  Startups like Seeo are getting acquired and I believe that this is the start of a new trend.  I'm seeing more energy startups getting into this game after a hiatus of almost 3 years.  I'm seeing more investors put money into batteries.   Lawmakers all over this country are paying attention and starting to wonder how they can make a difference.
On Nov 3, we will bring together experts to discuss all of these aspects: including the present status of battery technology, lessons on how to succeed in the market, how start-ups can compete with big players, does policy help or hinder, what new innovations are important for investors.
With keynote talks, technology updates, and panel discussions, we hope to have an in-depth conversation on the status of the technology, the market challenges, and the role of policy.   At the end of the day, we will have a reception with posters that showcase the latest in the technology.
Some of the Keynote speakers include:
  • David Hochschild, Commissioner, California Energy Commission
  • Mateo Jaramillo, Director of Powertrain Business Development, Tesla Motors
  • Danny Kennedy, Managing Director, CalCEF, and President, CalCharge
  • Cheryl Martin, Former Acting Director, ARPA-E, Founder, Harwich Partners
  • Hany Eitouni, Chief Technology Officer, Seeo Inc. 
  • George Crabtree, Director, Joint Center for Energy Storage Research
 Whether you are an energy storage researcher, developer, policy maker, or investor, you will find the meeting to be of interest. So join us at this exciting event.
For more details, click here
To register click here

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Are you charged up? Because we are ready to go!

Succeeding in the battery space is hard.  One needs a technology that has some advantage over existing technologies; the advantage has to be large enough that one can compete with existing players, especially ones that are in Asia.  The technology has to be manufacturable at a low cost so that one can compete without requiring a large cost premium.  And one has to to maintain the advantage as competitors try to catch up.  

But its not just about the technology.  If you don't have a technology that satisfies a market demand, then its equally likely that the company will not succeed.  

And in some markets your efforts may be stymied by the regulatory policies that may prevent the battery being developed from being used. 

What this means is that to succeed, you need to have the right battery technology, the right manufacturing methods, go after the right markets, and use regulations to your advantage.  Tall order for any one person to do by themselves!

So how does one learn about all of these things?

Say Hello to CalCharge: The consortium that Berkeley Lab and CalCEF have formed to accelerate innovation by forming a regional innovation cluster. Read about CalCharge here.  

CalCharge has teamed up with San Jose State to start what we are calling "Battery University"- a professional educational program that will address the technology, market, and policy challenges. You can learn all about this and get the latest news about batteries in California at a kickoff event scheduled for next Tuesday Feb 12th at 6 PM at the Network Meeting Center in Santa Clara.  

Former Senator Bingaman, who was the Chair of the Senate Energy and Resources Committee, will provide us his views on storage, the importance of regional innovation clusters, and the role the federal goverment can play. We also have a roster of great speakers from SJSU, Applied Ventures, and Proctor and Gamble.  

More importantly, you may even have a chance to see me speak. 

Learn all about it here

It is the start of something great.  Its a good way to learn about storage, and to network.  We will even have a setup to watch the State of the Union at 6 PM before we launch into the program for the day.  

So come join us to get charged up.  



Saturday, December 15, 2012

And here are the lucky winners

I have a new found respect for movie actors (not stage actors, mind you).  Being in front of a camera makes you self conscious in a way being in front of an audience does not.  I can see why Arnold stuck to one liners! 

Anyhooo... last week, I asked via a video blog to send in your questions on all things batteries.  The response was infinitely better than I expected (ponder that sentence for a second and you will see two ways to interpret that). I answered a few of the questions.  

The questions were all very interesting ranging from how we can make a battery that is five time better and five times cheaper to how one can become a battery scientist (start a blog?). 

The clip with the answers is below.  I assume there will be followups.  You can post them in the comments and I will answer them.  It may be during the Holiday break, but I will answer them.  


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Ask and you shall receive... maybe

This is a bit embarrassing.  TWiB is getting updated twice in a week!  I shall try to average things out after this by not posting for a couple of years!  Just kidding folks.  Changes are on the way.  2013 will be a bonanza for all seven of you.

But, let us get back to the task at hand.  My Lab has decided that sitting on planes all day is not really "doing work".  So I have been asked to get some tangible things done for a change.  But first, they would like me to prove that I actually know something about batteries!

So, please watch the video below and ask your questions.  I will be answering a few of them next week in another video blog.  

So ask away.  


Monday, December 3, 2012

What’s all this hubbub about a Hub?

All seven of my fans are aware that I have not been blogging much over the last year and a half.  Part of the reason is that I had, for all practical purposes, relocated to Chicago since the summer of 2011.  I (and many others) spent that one year working on a proposal with Argonne National Lab, which culminated in an announcement that our team had won.  The proposal was for an energy storage (i.e. battery) hub.  This is great news all around.  I have gotten a lot of questions on this, so I decided to write this post to get some information out. 

First, the announcement from DOE is here.

Now comes the FAQ.

There is already so much battery research going on.   What’s the big deal?

Ahh… the million dollar (or the $120M) question!  There is a lot of wonderful battery research already happening (and I’m part of a couple).  But we have very big challenges.  We need batteries that have 5 times the energy density of today’s batteries and have to be 1/5 the cost.  Right now, battery energy densities evolve at just 5% a year!  So the Hub is doing three things that are very different from existing battery efforts:

1.  It puts scientists and engineers, materials researchers and theorists, industry and academia all under “one (virtual) roof.”  This idea is not new (Bell Labs comes to mind and this was essentially Energy Secretary Steve Chu’s vision when he started the Hub proposal process), but it is new to batteries.  And doing this in a deliberate fashion instead of hoping for self-assembly is very important.

2.  It embarks on a new process of innovation.  This is a bit too detailed so I will not elaborate more, but let me just say that what we are planning to do in the Hub is very different from what has been tried in the past.  We hope that this new way of looking at batteries will help us find completely new materials that store energy, beyond what we can dream of today. I’m really excited about this.

3.  It brings together researchers who really understand batteries and puts them in close connection with folks who are experts in, say, materials, but who might be new to batteries.  I would posit that innovation occurs when this connection is made and new thought is brought to an old field.  This, too, is something that can be a game changer. 

But 5 times increase at 1/5 the cost in 5 years?  What are you smoking?

Folks who read my blog posts will know that while I may have one or two flaws (although nothing comes to mind at this moment), naivety isn’t one of them!  We fully appreciate the difficulty of the goals.  But this is what the world needs.  If we want electric cars (EV) everywhere and a way to store energy from a solar panel on our roofs, we need to do this.  That is the bottom line.  Let us not be naive in what the world needs.

So we are dreaming big.  But we are not violating any laws (well… maybe Moore’s Law for batteries, but not any laws that actually matter, like, Faraday’s Law).  These are theoretically possible.  It is however, hard. Very hard.  Hence, the need for a Hub.

And talking about smoking, it’s not all about energy and cost.  Safety will be an important aspect of our studies.  So will battery life and efficiency. 

I don’t care about EVs.  However, I do want my iPhone to last a bit longer. Can we get a Hub for that?

Anyone who really understands batteries will tell you that a good battery is a good battery.  So, on the way to making a better EV battery, we will probably make a better iPhone battery. Actually the path to an EV goes through the consumer electronics world. 
Our focus, however, will be on better EV batteries, and better grid storage batteries.  Think long discharge times.
Think long life.
Think cheap. 

So, what is this, a new kind of Li-ion battery?  Aren’t those like 20 years old or something?

First off, today’s Li-ion battery is not the same as your father’s Li-ion battery.  Far from it.  Having said that, we are looking at things that will go beyond Li-ion.  Actually, if everything works well, we may have a new kind of battery, which may have no lithium in it. 

What is Berkeley Lab’s role in this? 

Berkeley started working with Argonne on this proposal three years ago.  Our efforts intensified a year and a half ago.  Argonne and Berkeley Lab are the two big labs in battery research in this country focusing on vehicle batteries.  Our team was rounded out by labs and universities that brought grid storage experience and other specific expertise.  And we tied in with companies to ensure that we can deliver something scalable and manufacturable. 

Berkeley Lab has a very well known battery program already that understands everything you need to know about a battery and can translate fundamental knowledge to lab-scale prototypes, a very well known materials sciences program that can make any material at any scale, computing facilities that can predict things that have never been possible before, and a bunch of user facilities that can help see things at scales that are unprecedented.  We will be using all this in the Hub. 

You can read about the Battery Lab role here

Material Science, computation!!  Why are we spending tax dollars on these ivory tower projects? Can we get a job’s Hub instead?

Funny you should ask.  One of the underlying principles of Hubs is to get stuff out the door.  It is not science for the sake of science, but science with an impact.  This ethos is built into the Hub.  There will be hiring of not just postdocs and students, but training of the next generation of scientists and engineers.  There will be technology transfer to our industry partners in the Hub and to other companies that we have ties with. And, we will be moving things to the marketplace via startup companies.  We are trying to build a complete innovation network.  I wrote an op-ed recently in the San Jose Mercury News on how these networks will be critical in creating jobs.  You can read that here.

So, is Silicon Valley going to move to Chicago? 
Please.  Get real.  Chicago is a plain. Not a valley (I think).  So, Storage Plain, maybe?

But seriously, Chicago is trying to get a Silicon Valley-type idea in place focused on batteries.  So are Michigan and Boston (although they have a head start). 
Probably the biggest such collection of companies in batteries is located right here in California.  A few months ago, Berkeley Lab teamed up with CalCEF to start CalCharge, an innovation consortium focused on batteries.   You can read about it here.   

I’m really excited about CalCharge, too.  In addition to all the battery research in California, the Hub will provide us with more tools to innovate.  We are now very well poised to move technology to market in a rapid fashion. 

So, No. Silicon Valley will not be moving to Chicago. Instead, we will have four centers where innovation ecosystems will thrive.  And they will all help create jobs. 

Now that you are not travelling, can we expect more blog posts? Or, at least a change in title to, “This Year in Batteries”?

Maybe.  But I’m beginning to realize that I have missed a full year of TV watching.  Numerous episodes of Sherlock, Downton Abbey, and This Old House beckon.
But let’s not start jumping to changing titles just yet.  Lord knows how many more months it will take to get back my seven readers to the new site.  TWiB will be going through a change (based on a suggestion by a colleague).  Stay tuned.