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Reinventing Batteries for Electric Vehicles: Interview with ARPA-E Deputy Director Cheryl Martin

Jesse Jenkins's picture

Jesse is a researcher, consultant, and writer with ten years of experience in the energy sector and expertise in electric power systems, electricity regulation, energy and climate change policy...

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  • Aug 31, 2013

Last week ARPA-E announced 22 recipients for $36 million in total awards under the agency’s new Robust Affordable Next Generation Energy Storage Systems, or RANGE, program.

RANGE aims to reinvent the electric vehicle battery at the system level by targeting outside the box concepts that could change the way we look at electricity storage options for transportation.

Some of the approaches in RANGE include solid-state batteries without a liquid electrolyte that could be integrated into a vehicle’s frame; inherently robust battery designs, including electrolytes that stiffen upon impact to safely absorb and disperse the force of a collision; and aqueous and flow batteries influenced by ARPA-E’s grid-scale storage work. These are just some of the radical electric vehicle battery designs funded by RANGE in an effort to hasten adoption of electric vehicles by dramatically improving driving range, enhancing safety and reliability, and reducing battery costs.

The new program is ARPA-E’s fifteenth focused program area since the innovation agency’s launch in 2009 (the agency also offered open funding rounds in 2009 and 2012).

In an exclusive interview for, I recently spoke with ARPA-E’s Deputy Director Dr. Cheryl Martin about RANGE and the agency’s efforts to help re-envision and reinvent the electric vehicle battery. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Jesse Jenkins ( Dr. Martin, thanks for joining me. To begin, tell our readers what the goals of this new program are? What do you hope ARPA-E will accomplish with the 22 projects funded by RANGE?

Cheryl MartinDr. Cheryl Martin (ARPA-E): Well, we all know that the need for innovation in batteries and energy storage for electric vehicles is not a new subject. But we felt strongly that there was a whole different way of looking at the problem, which is a very good definition of ARPA-E’s role in the energy innovation system. We redefine the problem in a new way and see if we can come up with new approaches and new opportunities. Take the area of biofuels, for instance. At ARPA-E, we looked at how we produce cellulosic fuels and asked if we could engineer biofuel feedstocks to show new and different qualities that would improve their ability to make fuel – and that meant altering millions of years of plant evolution .

So that brings us to electric vehicles. We know the major problems are range anxiety and cost. We [ARPA-E] have run programs addressing this issue that are working on getting these high energy density battery chemistries to work. Programs like BEEST [Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation] are making great strides and we’re really excited about what we’ve seen already. We are also hopeful that what others, like the DOE Energy Innovation Hubs, are doing in this space will be really productive.

Having funded BEEST and other high-density EV battery projects, it was time for us to take a whole different approach, and ask: Can you have a battery that operates fundamentally differently than current technologies? And since it’s the car as a whole that has to deal with range issues, and you’re driving the car – not the battery – we asked: How can you look at batteries from a systems approach and consider the bigger picture?

Well, you could approach that question and say that maybe the battery doesn’t have to be just a battery, but could have other functions in the vehicle. Maybe it can absorb impacts? Then it does more than just be a battery — it helps with safety in crashes. Or you could really push the question and think differently about whether the battery can be part of the car in a different way? That’s where some of these ideas with polymeric systems or solid-state systems come in that are much more robust — where the battery itself could be integral to the vehicle’s structural design. So you see, if you start to think more expansively, then you can also think about some of the aqueous chemistries that we haven’t looked at for vehicles before.

Walk me through a couple of the projects selected for awards through this program. What projects have you excited?

Let’s look at a couple projects in this portfolio using solid-state chemistries. Colorado-based Solid Power and Bettergy, located in Peekskill, New York, are trying to change the battery’s electrolyte from a traditional liquid electrolyte to a solid-state electrolyte. So instead of focusing on reducing cost and improving robustness of a liquid electrolyte they’re using new nano-particles and synthesis of solid-state materials to develop an entirely different system.

We’ve all been trained to think of a battery as two electrodes stuck in a liquid electrolyte. Think about that science class experiment you did where you stick two electrodes in a lemon or a pickle or something! But what if now the whole battery were solid-state? That’s a whole different approach with different possibilities that can help us create new learning curves or cost and performance ranges compared to traditional batteries.

Another set of projects is focused on making batteries more robust. One project, led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, focuses on an impact-resistant electrolyte. When the battery is hit by a force, as in a collision, the liquid electrolyte thickens up and absorbs that energy and dissipates it later. That’s a pretty cool concept, right?! It would help make batteries more crash resistant, for example.

If ARPA-E hits a home-run with this program, what will the world look like 10 or 20 years from now?

Well, once we can demonstrate some of these technologies, I think others will also come along and say, Wow, I wonder what else I can do in this space? We’re hoping this program has ripple effects that go well beyond what we’re putting in to these specific projects and well beyond just talking about batteries for transportation.

If we really succeed here, the idea of using a suite of options to think about energy storage and electric transportation will be different. So I think if this is successful, we’ll have many more electric vehicles with batteries with whole different structures. It will free up designers to think about different ways to put their vehicles together. There’ll be cross-overs back to grid-level storage as well. And I love to think about spillovers to other areas that we just can’t envision today, like advanced batteries for computers or mobile electronics.

This isn’t ARPA-E’s only program focused on alternative transportation or energy storage technologies. The GRIDS program focuses on grid-scale energy storage. The BEEST program also focused on EV batteries. AMPED is also focused on advanced power electronics and battery controls: everything from sensors to control systems to diagnostics to understand the health of battery. So how does RANGE relate to the rest of ARPA-E’s portfolio?

BEEST was one of our earliest focused programs. It focused on developing new, high-energy density battery chemistries. One way to get more distance out of your vehicle is to get more energy density out of your battery, which gives you more energy, and thus longer range, in a smaller package. So that’s one approach to the key challenge of range anxiety and cost.

But if you look at AMPED [Advanced Management and Protection of Energy Storage Devices], the idea was that the reason our batteries are as large as they are is that they have this big safety margin, since we often don’t really understand enough about the health of the battery. So if you want to reduce the cost and size of batteries to improve range, you could think about having more intelligent controls and battery health diagnostics, so you could have a smaller battery without even changing the chemistry of the battery.

So together, with RANGE, these three programs give us a suite of options to tackle the key challenges on the electric transportation side: range limitations and costs of electric vehicle ownership.

On the grid-level side, our GRIDS [Grid-Scale Rampable Intermittent Dispatchable Storage] program is funding things like compressed air, wave disk engines, flow batteries, and more. Our view is that RANGE and AMPED may potentially also have value in the area of grid-level batteries in the future. In the meantime, learning about liquid or aqueous battery chemistries from GRIDS has influenced our thinking about new possibilities for EV batteries.

Shifting to a higher-level perspective, how are the seemingly-never-ending budget fights in Congress affecting the agency and your thinking on how you approach these critical energy innovation challenges?

One of the great things about ARPA-E and the way we’re structured is that we fully fund our projects right up front. So when we say we’ve awarded $900,000 a specific project, that money is already set aside from our current year’s budget. So even if that project takes 2-3 years to complete, those scientists don’t have to worry about their budget being cut mid-project. That makes a huge different. Our researchers can stay focused on the problem at hand and hopefully knock down these technical challenges to get these technologies moving and change our energy future.

You know, ARPA-E has had tremendous bipartisan support from its inception. We were founded based on the bipartisan “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report. We’ve had Senators and Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle championing the agency’s work. They’ve been very supportive of the work we do because we really are in that transformative early R&D stage and take seriously the development and deployment of these technologies to ensure they have real impact. The feedback so far from Congress in generally has been really positive. So I’m encouraged that as we continue this dialogue over budget priorities across the energy spectrum, that ARPA-E’s important contributions will be recognized.

In the meantime, we’ll do everything we can with every bit of funding that we’re allowed to invest.

Each program has a budget of around $20 to $35 million. So as we look at the budget, because we don’t have ongoing funding commitments locking up into the future, we can think about how many new programs can we launch that can have a real impact. We also have the option to get creative with how we fund things as well. So, for example, we did an open solicitation last year to fund smaller areas of work that are really technically important but may not need $30 million or constitute a full program. So we have a set of tools to get the most out of the money Congress directs to ARPA-E.

So if you’re making your case to the public or to Congress, why is ARPA-E worth continued investment despite tightening federal budgets?

ARPA-E is fundamentally focused on using innovation to create new options for America’s energy future, be that in energy production or generation, transmission, use, or transportation. It’s ARPA-Es role to be out there across the spectrum, really pushing the envelope to create those options for the future. Hopefully, to confront the greatest energy challenges we face.. 

So what’s our role in all of this? ARPA-E aims to be catalytic and accelerative. It’s why we take really seriously picking important areas and working with our project teams to help them make the right connections and understand where they need to go to have an impact even after ARPA-E’s funding period. These teams are creating things that future decision makers, business leaders, innovators – future generations – are going to need. And if you don’t do that research now, you won’t have those tools ready for folks when we need them in the future.

I do think the new RANGE program really exemplifies that commitment. It embodies everything from taking new ways to define and tackle a problem to look at new ways to design the fundamental look and feel of battery and to open up new frontiers for battery design. So I’m really proud of this program and what it could mean if some of this invention happens.

We’re also honest that some of this won’t happen. We are asking people to take big swings with their projects, to aim for the fences. Some of these won’t work as intended. We know that. When projects hit a roadblock, we work hard with all of our project teams to find a way forward, but if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and we stop that project and redirect funds to what is working. That’s one of the real strengths of ARPA-E.

And of course there is plenty of learning to be had even from the paths that don’t work out too. If something doesn’t work out, now we have a new way to frame the question and new ways to think about next steps. So I’d say the only failure at ARPA-E is a failure to stop funding something we know we should have stopped. Everything else is really an opportunity.

Gary Tulie's picture
Gary Tulie on Aug 31, 2013

Maybe with such a global strategic technology we aught to be looking at global programs of research funded jointly by groups of interested countries and international companies?

That way, you get a wider cross – fertilization of ideas, more scientists and engineers participating, and hopefully a faster learning curve making technology affordable more quickly for anything coming out of the program. 

Mike Dicello's picture
Mike Dicello on Aug 31, 2013

He forgot also that the research into super capacitors which is a hybrid of capacitors and battery. It charges like a capacitor but discharge like a battery. The amount of space and weight required make it a worthy for future use, life expectancy is greater with estimate 1mil charge/discharge cycles life expectancy.
link to read more.

Gary Tulie's picture
Gary Tulie on Aug 31, 2013

Super-capacitors have the potential to be ideal for hybrids as whilst they have relatively low energy density (for now) they have enormous power density up to around 10 kW per kg and as Mike says, a very long life expectancy – for practical purposes at least the life of the car. 

Having a very high power density is ideal for absorbing the energy of regenerative breaking, and for powering short bursts of acceleration – so allowing a much smaller lighter engine to supply the much lower required amount of energy to keep the car moving at steady speed. For all situations apart from mountain driving a small super-capacitor pack can cover the requirements of hybrid mode driving so are perfect for lightweight city cars. 

Current commercial super-capacitors have an energy density around 6Wh per kg or around a twentieth of the energy density of a lithium battery, however new forms of super-capacitor in the research phase – using materials like carbon nanotubes and 3D graphine hold out the promise of around 60Wh per kg – much closer to the energy density of batteries especially as such super-capacitors may have sufficient strength to play a structural role as well as storing energy. 

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Thank Jesse for the Post!
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