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.



  1. The art of simplicity in complexity...Venkat I love your beautiful if we could just get you to tweet an occasional pearl of wisdom Twitter would be a better place. Bravo! @inouelisa Dow Chemical

  2. One of your seven readers still here! If you're very busy but you're going to be in regular contacts with lots of other energy storage experts then how about getting them to post here as well? Many hands make light work...

    1. Johnb: Interesting thought. It is similar to the suggestion by my colleague (but at a much grander scale). I need to work on that.

  3. Welcome back, that other site was awful, you litterally couldn't find anything you wrote there! Good thing TWIB was still in google reader or I never would have known.

    Keep posting your updates here, please...

  4. "We need batteries that have 5 times the energy density of today’s batteries and have to be 1/5 the cost."

    Do we? I mean sure, that would be great, but batteries with twice the density of what Tesla is using, around 250wh/kg cell level, and half the price, would mean a 600 mile range Model S for maybe $50K and a 300 mile range version for $30K. Or the LEAF with 150 miles of range for $20K. If you also increase the durability of the batteries at the same time then pack replacement costs go away and the secondary use value of the pack increases, effectively lowering the total ownership costs.
    In any case, good luck with the effort!

    1. Depends. If you want to absolutely positively move away from gas cars, then you got to range match AND cost match. While I'm a huge believer that halving battery costs will make a big difference, mass conversion will require more. Now if gas starts to cost more.... I think 5x energy is easier than a gas tax :-) Turns out that 1/5 the cost will seal the deal (so to speak). To get there, we probably have to get to higher energy anyway.

      One other point to consider. In India, a average person pays $4000 for a car. Commutes are short, but charging is hard. Imaging wanting to replace all those gas guzzlers. 1/5 the cost is the only hope.

      Incidentally, I'm a big fan of PHEVs. I'm in the market for a car and hope to post something on my research over the break.


  5. Nicely said Venkat! Looking forward to working with you in the Hub.