A materials scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, Daniel Abraham leads the effort to identify performance degradation mechanisms in lithium-ion cells to enable development of alternative materials that enhance cell performance, life and safety. He is responsible for the development of advanced diagnostic tools and techniques that include diffraction, microscopy, spectroscopy and electrochemistry methodologies.
In this interview with The Battery Show, Daniel discusses what he hopes to achieve in his work on lithium ion battery systems for automotive applications; the latest developments in lithium ion battery material and chemistry development; and the challenges associated with striving for energy storage based on renewable and sustainable resources.
TBS: Please describe your background and previous experience and what would you say are the core focus areas and priorities in your current role?
DA: I arrived at Argonne more than 19 years ago, after my PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My early research focused on nuclear technology. We developed metallic waste forms to isolate and contain radioactive components from spent nuclear fuel. My responsibilities included the synthesis, characterization and testing of these alloys for ultimate disposal in a geologic repository.
My focus changed to lithium-ion battery research in 2001 because I saw opportunities to develop a nascent technology that I believe is going to transform the automotive industry. Our team conducts mission-driven research on the development and diagnostics of battery cell chemistries. A core focus area for me is the conception, planning and implementation of projects that have considerable impact on lithium-ion technology and scientific knowledge.
I currently serve as a principal investigator for several projects. In addition, I provide research advice to program sponsors and colleagues, both at Argonne and other institutions around the world. A priority for me is to serve as a mentor for students, postdoctoral researchers and junior professionals – for I believe that the skills and imagination of several generations of scientists and engineers will be needed to overcome the challenges we encounter!
TBS: What are the key projects you are working on right now? What do they hope to achieve?
DA: My main projects are on developing an understanding of factors that govern the performance and performance degradation of lithium-ion battery systems. An important goal is to get our cell chemistries into batteries for automotive applications – into the next generation of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.
A two- to five-year battery lifetime is sufficient for portable electronic applications – a 10- to 15-year battery lifetime is needed for transportation applications. To enhance cell longevity we develop, fabricate and test various electrode and electrolyte materials and identify combinations that meet project targets.
Our aim is to reduce the lifetime costs of battery systems by improving cell performance, life and safety. I hope that our work leads to high-energy-density batteries that can provide a 400-mile range on a single charge, and deliver consistently high performance over the vehicle’s lifetime. I hope that our work leads to batteries that can be charged rapidly, in less time than is needed to fill a 20-gallon gas tank!
TBS: You are widely recognized as a leading scientist in the field of lithium-ion batteries. What can you tell us about the latest developments in materials and chemistries for lithium-based batteries?
DA: I’m intrigued by recent reports of high-performing lithium-battery cells containing ceramic-based solid electrolytes. The performance of these cells apparently matches those of cells containing the conventional liquid or gel electrolytes. Solid electrolyte cells would have significant safety advantages: they would be less likely to catch fire under overcharge or thermal-abuse conditions.
Also making the news are novel battery architectures – that is, new ways of assembling the various components into cells. Some companies – touting cells with silicon-based negative electrodes – are adopting ideas from the semiconductor fabrication industry. Other researchers are developing electrodes with only the electrochemically active components, thereby significantly increasing energy densities.
Of course, there are the occasional reports of “paper batteries” and “paint-on batteries” and “jelly batteries”. The energy storage research field has expanded vastly in the past few years. The fusion of traditional and evolving disciplines has led to an explosion of ideas. Some of these innovations may even be commercially viable – only time will tell.
TBS: The demand for energy across our everyday lives is increasing, thus the issue of creating energy from renewable and sustainable sources is of growing importance. What are the challenges associated with creating and storing energy with renewable, sustainable materials?
DA: I believe that developing batteries from renewable and sustainable resources is the biggest challenge in our field. Many lithium-ion battery systems currently under development contain nickel- and cobalt-based oxides that depend on scarce and non-renewable resources. For example, nickel makes up only 90 parts per million and cobalt about 20 parts per million of the Earth’s crust.
We are, therefore, examining technologies for recycling lithium batteries to recover the non-renewable inorganic components and reduce the amount of waste that would otherwise burden our landfills. We are also examining new lithium battery systems that are based on high-performance organic molecules, which can be synthesized following the principles of green chemistry and should be easily recyclable.
Currently, these novel technologies are limited by their energy and power densities and also cell lifetimes. However, the march toward renewable, sustainable materials is certain – and future generations will thank us for doing so!
TBS: The cost and range/energy density of batteries for electric vehicles have often been cited as key reasons why EVs have failed to spark the mass-market adoption hoped for. How do you think these issues can be addressed?
DA: Yes, the cost and range of batteries are currently barriers to widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Then again, buying cars is more than about their batteries – the public perception of electric cars, and societal pressure to act in a more environmentally friendly way, also play a role. As in other arenas, the early adopters, the ones passionate about electric vehicles, are leading the way. New technology adoption takes time, sometimes generations! It took decades for cars to completely replace the horse and buggy!
That said, energy density has improved substantially over the past decade, mainly through advances in cell engineering. And new electrochemical pairings, which can provide energy densities more than twice those of current chemistries, are being optimized for the marketplace. Performance degradation is being minimized through modifications in cell chemistry, electrode fabrication and battery pack engineering. Some of these solutions, such as subsystems to maintain constant temperatures in battery packs, add to up-front costs but lower maintenance costs over the battery’s lifetime.
Not long ago, a cup of coffee cost 50 cents – now we routinely pay more than $4 for our tall caramel macchiato! The costs of battery packs and electric vehicles will decrease with time – and the willingness of consumers to pay more for “I want” technologies will increase with time.
TBS: The national labs are pioneers of research, developing solutions for current and future energy requirements. How can industry partner with labs such as Argonne to gain access to cutting-edge technologies?
DA: I would argue that technology transfer to and working with industry for the benefit of the American public is critical for a national laboratory. Argonne’s licensing program provides companies with opportunities to acquire rights to our inventions and copyrights. Some of our battery technologies have been licensed by several companies including General Motors and BASF.
We conduct cost-shared R&D, where funds are provided by both the industrial partner and Argonne, under a cooperative research and development agreement. We also conduct work-for-others research where the costs are paid entirely by the partnering organization and the work is performed by Argonne.
We have other types of partnering agreements to meet the needs and interests of industry – information on these matters can be obtained through Argonne’s Technology Development and Commercialization Division.
TBS: Can you explain how the different national laboratories work together? For example, how much collaboration is there between Argonne, Lawrence Berkeley and Oak Ridge National Laboratories?
DA: The different national laboratories team up to work on projects of national interest – each institution contributes its strengths and expertise to these projects. I’ve collaborated and published research articles with colleagues from Lawrence Berkeley, Sandia, Idaho and Brookhaven national laboratories as part of the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Development program. I currently work with researchers from Oak Ridge, Berkeley, Brookhaven and Idaho labs on DOE’s Applied Battery Research program, in addition to researchers from various academic institutions.
An excellent example of a national lab, university and industry partnership is the Argonne-led Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, also known as JCESR. JCESR brings together top-tier scientists and world-class scientific facilities, such as the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne, and aims to revolutionize technologies for energy storage.
TBS: We’re really looking forward to hearing you speak at The Battery Show, but what are you looking forward to about the show this year?
DA: I’m really looking forward to attending the various sessions, especially the OEM Electrification Strategies session and the Charging Infrastructure Conference. The Electrification Strategies session provides a broader perspective for my work – it allows me to see the end result of our cell-chemistry R&D – the cycling of battery packs and modules under real-world conditions that make technical and economic sense.
And I look forward to learning about advances in the charging infrastructure, because the widespread adoption of electric vehicle technology may hinge on the availability of charging – or battery swapping – stations.
I’m excited about meeting leaders in the various arenas of energy storage, from medical devices to vehicle technologies to the electric grid and other stationary-storage applications. And, of course, I look forward to inviting my peers in industry to visit our various research facilities. Come work with us! Collaborate with us on projects of mutual interest and benefit – teach us, learn from us!
Daniel Abraham presents Lithium-Ion Batteries: Materials and Chemistries at The Battery Show Conference, Day 1, Track 2, Tuesday September 17 at 2:05pm. Secure your place at this must-attend industry event and gain access to three days of knowledge sharing, networking and valuable market insights with the leaders in battery business.