Friday, April 30, 2010

LBNL everywhere...?

ARPA-E announced the results for their latest round of solicitations that they issued a few months ago on transformational energy projects. One of the areas was batteries for vehicles. 10 projects were identified to receive the award (Here is the list). 3 of these (that I can talk about) have an LBNL connection. Its a proud day for what I consider the top battery program in the country. Turns out that the number 3 is not the full story, but I can't talk about any other connections that may (or may not) exist. Welcome to the world of startup's and confidentiality and stealth.

That's the quick summary. Here are the details. ARPA-E stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, is the DARPA (Defense Advanced....) of DOE. I guess no one liked EARPA! Their mission is to (I copy and paste here):

- Enhance U.S. economic security by identifying technologies with the potential to substantially reduce energy imports from foreign sources; cut energy-related greenhouse gas emissions; and improve efficiency across the energy spectrum.

- Ensure the U.S. remains a technological and economic leader in developing and deploying advanced energy technologies.

This is the official spiel. In reality, ARPA-E is the agency that is supposed to help identify the next transformative idea related to energy technology. Think, the next transistor, or the next light bulb, but related to energy. You get the picture. These bullets above also do not convey the level of buzz this new agency has generated in the battery community. We have been energized. Getting ARPA-E funding is now considered to be a big deal. A very big deal. There are huge bragging rights for the winners, and those who are finalists.

No officially numbers have been released, but my sources (is that an euphemism for "I pulled it out of you-know-where"?) tell me that 350 concept papers came in the battery area. Of these 70 were down selected for submitting a full proposal. Of these 70, 10 were funded (ARPA-E folks: Please feel free to correct this). Less than 3% of ideas are funded! Now you know why being one of the 75 is a big deal and being one of the 10 is an even bigger deal. So you can see why its a proud day for LBNL when we have 3 funded proposals that we are involved with.

LBNL was involved in 6 submissions in the concept paper stage. All 6 were selected for submitting a full proposal. 2 of these 6 were selected to receive an award. The first of these is a project on a lithium sulfur (Li-S) battery that was led by Sion Power. Li-S is a chemistry that promised very high energy density, but has a lot of problems that hinder it from being commercialized. Sion is in the forefront of developing this technology. They will be working with John Newman, who is, for those of you who don't know, the father of electrochemical engineering (For those who track these things- I consider Charles Tobias to be the grandfather of electrochemical engineering). He wrote the book on the subject, literally. If you don't believe me, check this link. John Newman will be helping Sion with modeling their system. Systems like Li-S, if commercialized, can solve the problem of range for EVs and can help us adopt this technology.

The second is one from Applied Materials. They want to develop a manufacturing process that will lead to low-cost batteries that have high energy. Cost, as I have pointed out again and again, is one of the show-stoppers that prevent large scale adoption of EVs and PHEVs. Addressing this issue is critical. Applied will be working with Gao Liu and Vince Battaglia- both experts in making battery electrodes and cells.

These are the two where LBNL appears in the list. But there is one more that is hidden (that I can talk about). This is Polyplus, which got funded to develop Li-air batteries. Polyplus is a LBNL spinoff started by Steve Visco and Lutgard De Jonghe . Some of the underlying work that led to the formation of Polyplus was conducted under, what is now, the BATT Program. Li-air is the Holy Grail of batteries- a system that has 10x the energy density of today's batteries on a mass basis. Polyplus is pretty much the top company in this area. If they succeed, we can make a big dent on the range issue with EVs.

Three very different projects; but they all promise to change the world if they succeed. The fact that the reviewers have picked so many of the projects that LBNL was involved with is a testimony to the cutting edge research that happens here. Congrats to all the winners. And did I mention that this is not all. There may (or may not) be other connections. Stay tuned.

In a future post, I will delve a bit more into these technologies and provide my thoughts on what the critical challenges are and what (I think) their approach will be.



  1. Cool...Look forward to hearing more about these technologies.


  2. Is ARPA-E enough to ensure US lead in this technology?

  3. Venkat SrinivasanMay 2, 2010 at 5:55 AM

    Anonymous on "is this enough for the US to get a lead": The answer is Yes and No. We all have to realize that making a battery is very very hard. Battery folks will tell you that it takes 10 years and $100M to build a battery company and then BYD from china will eat your lunch. There are certainly exceptions to this, but the point being made is its very hard to make a battery. The good news here is that the projects are supposed to be high risk, so its going to be hard for a BYD to compete with them, if they succeed. "if they succeed" is the operative phase because if its high risk, its also hard to make them successful. But ARPA-E is supposed to fund high risk ideas.
    There is a phrase in my native tongue that essentially translates to: to succeed, your time should be good (i.e., you should be lucky), or your timing should be good. To succeed in making a better battery you probably have to have both. The timing is great for someone in the battery space (with all the present interest in storage). All you need is a bid of luck. Maybe VC should use a new due diligence method that involves gauging the luck of the entrepreneur ("do you feel lucky, punk? Do you?")!
    So its hard to make a battery, but we have to start somewhere. $5M can go a long way for a paper idea to reach a point where we can get to a 'go no-go decision'. And a ARPA-E grant of $5M can lead to more interest and more funding from, say, VC's etc. and can spur further development. Now some of the companies that got funded have been working on the problem for 15 years and have already spent 10's of millions of dollars on it. Is another $5M going to be enough to push this over the top? Its hard to believe this, but I really hope so.

  4. I've heard of a technology that is essentially a nuclear type battery. Do you have any insight into this? Is it even possible?