Researchers Continue to Push Life of Batteries What improvements are needed to make electric cars and other environmentally-friendly products more feasible? What exactly are the stumbling blocks?

Researchers Continue to Push Life of Batteries

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

A program note: On Monday's show, Rebecca Roberts guest hosts for the look at whether or not guns should be allowed on campus. Plus, on the Opinion Page, a sense of responsibility for the Virginia Tech shootings hits along ethnic lines. That's Monday on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

We're talking this hour about energy and the environment. It's sort of our Earth Day show. Earth Day is this Sunday. And, you know, we always talk about electric-powered cars. We've been talking them this hour - some plug-ins, some hybrids. And you know every time, and we did this on the program we did a few weeks ago about the car show and the plug-in cars there; every time you talk to a carmaker or producer about plug-in cars, you see this concept cars they have at these shows, and you ask them, well, when am I going to be able to buy one of these plug-in cars? They'll say, well, the battery technology is not there yet. We have to wait for the batteries. Without better batteries, the cars wouldn't have the range or the power or some other property that they need to build a car that regular folks want to buy and use.

So where do we stand with batteries for greener cars? And what exactly are the stumbling blocks? Joining me now is Tom Fuller. He's a principal research engineer at Georgia Tech, and the director of the Center for Innovative Fuel Cell and Battery Technologies there. He's also a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He joins us now from George Public Radio, across the street there. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. TOM FULLER (Research Engineer, Center for Innovative Fuel Cell and Battery Technologies, Georgia Tech): Good afternoon. Glad to be here.

FLATOW: Why do we keep hearing them telling us that batteries aren't ready yet?

Dr. FULLER: Well, I think the truth is they're not quite ready. And when you compare them to the alternatives, the internal combustion engine in terms of energy density and specific power, they don't compare quite as well as they should.

FLATOW: And what is lacking here? What cannot a battery do and how do we make it do what we want it to do?

Dr. FULLER: Well, I think you have to look at sort of three key factors here, three metrics. One is the energy density, so just how much energy you can get out per unit volume or unit mass; the cost of the battery; and the durability or cycle life. And typically, it's trying to meet all of those three requirements simultaneously is where batteries fall down. You maybe able to get the good energy density, you maybe able to get good durability, but it will come at a very high cost. And if you can get lower cost, you may not have the same durability.

FLATOW: Do we need a breakthrough to bring the cost down?

Dr. FULLER: I don't think you need a breakthrough. I think it's unlikely, in fact, that we'll see a really dramatic breakthrough. We're certainly not going to see a breakthrough, I would say, like the Moore's Law with semiconductors and how many transistors you can fit on a chip.

You're going to see, in my mind, more incremental changes, continuous improvements - engineering. If we were to find a breakthrough, that would be wonderful, but I wouldn't count on it.

FLATOW: So we're not trying to find some new battery material. We hear that, you know, the lead-acid batteries, there's nickel, there's all kinds of stuff.

Dr. FULLER: Right. So today I would say most of the focus of research is on lithium batteries. And it's not because they have better cycle life, it's because they have the potential for better energy density out of them.

FLATOW: You can get more energy per square spot - for battery size.

Dr. FULLER: Per volume of the battery…


Dr. FULLER: …or per unit mass of the battery, you can store more energy in a lithium system. And I think that has sort of overcome or, you know, sort of been the main focus for the last decade, and I expect it will be for quite sometime. There are, I would say unfortunately, not nearly as much effort as going in to looking for new battery chemistries. If you're looking for a breakthrough similar to the improvements of, say, lithium made over a lead-acid battery, I don't think there's really a lot of activity in that area, unfortunately.

FLATOW: Why not?

Dr. FULLER: Well, I think part of it is the funding has been driven more towards fuel cells and away from batteries, and that may be shortsighted.

FLATOW: And who determines the funding?

Dr. FULLER: Well, a lot of it is, you know, in terms of universities and governmental research is determined by the - largely by the Department of Energy.

FLATOW: So they're putting their money not into the battery research, but into the fuel cells? And you're familiar…

Dr. FULLER: That's correct.

FLATOW: …with fuel cell technologies, too, I understand.

Dr. FULLER: Yes. And, in fact, I have spent, you know, the better part of my career working on fuel cells rather than batteries. And you notice the center I direct is a fuel cell and battery center, and that's no accident. We want to work on both of them. We think they are complimentary technologies. I think, you know, since around 2003, when we had the hydrogen initiative, I think that actually was - put too much focus on fuel cells and actually took emphasis away from batteries, and I think we want a balance there.

FLATOW: Tell me, Dr. Fuller, how you would balance it. Where would you see the two complimenting one another? Give me an idea of it. If I go to the World's Fair, you know, you see the future, the cars, whatever. How would you lay that out for me?

Dr. FULLER: Well, so in my mind the real problem that we're trying to address -well, I'll say there's two problems. One, we like energy security, and by that I mean we want reasonably priced and available energy, and we want, I think the other crisis we have is global climate change, and for that, we want a transportation system that is - does not emit carbon dioxide. And I see there's two paths to do that, that there's - we want a carbon-free energy carrier, and that could be hydrogen, it could be electricity, and so it fundamentally comes down to whether you believe we're going to make more progress on hydrogen storage and fuel cells or whether you're going to make more progress on batteries.

And I think if you take a really good look at this, it's not clear where the winner is, and so you'd like to have a balance that looks at both of these alternatives because they can each accomplish the goal of providing a transportation system that does emit carbon dioxide.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. You know, the plug-in car people say that you're never going to get a good enough energy output from hydrogen in a fuel cell in a car to drive it - you know, go zero to 60 acceleration. Electricity is the way to go, and that if you want to talk about fuel cells, they're great. Have them power, you know, electrical generators that make electricity. Use it as a - use the hydrogen as a transportation.

Dr. FULLER: Right. I would disagree somewhat about that first statement about fuel cell not being able to provide enough power. It's true it does not have the same power density as, say, a battery, but you know, back at United Technologies where I worked before coming to Georgia Tech, you know, we built an all-fuel-cell vehicle with Hyundai, and it was quite capable of accelerating I think very well.

The reason you want to have the battery and the hybrid configuration is because you want to be able to recover the energy on braking, and then you get much better efficiency, but I guess I disagree. I think you can build a fuel cell that will achieve the right acceleration in a vehicle.

FLATOW: And could you - would that entail having a tank of hydrogen in your car?

Dr. FULLER: Right. So you think of the hydrogen storage and the fuel cell in your car are equivalent to a battery in the sense that that's your energy source and your power source, and rather than recharging, you're going to refill with hydrogen.

Now today, most of them are - use compressed hydrogen. There are a couple of people who have looked at cryogenic hydrogen, and also the long-term goal is to get to a metal hydrate or some sort of hydrogen storage that's in a solid.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Eric in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ERIC (Caller): Hey, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

ERIC: What about fuel cells for things like rail and shipping, and is there a way to implement this to build, say, a 500-mile power bullet train throughout the United States so we won't have to rely on airlines if we want to clean up the environment?

FLATOW: Good question.

Dr. FULLER: So people have looked at using fuel cells for both ship propulsion and for trains, and I think there is some merit to that in terms of better efficiency. It's most likely you would want to use a high-temperature fuel cell, something - because you're still going to rely on - you need a fuel, and hydrogen is probably not the right answer for many of those applications. You'd want to use a fossil fuel and convert that to hydrogen, and it makes a lot more sense with a high-temperature device where you can use some of the waste heat to help reform the fuel.

FLATOW: Let's go to Jeff in Los Gatos. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF (Caller): Hi, Jeff in Los Gatos. Thank you, Ira, for having me on today. I am from Silicon Valley myself, and I truly embrace the efforts that you folks are putting forth into getting the electrical vehicle, electric-driven versus combustible vehicles going forward in the future.

My problem is I have a gas-guzzling Dodge Durango, which kills me because I'd love to get rid of it, but more importantly I could get only a dime on the dollar because of the high prices. My big question is: Is there research being done on getting vehicles to be able to be retrofitted towards a electric vehicle? Because I'd love to spend $5,000 to $10,000 (unintelligible) vehicle and go that direction.

FLATOW: Let him pull out his gas-guzzling engine, put an electric one in it.

JEFF: Well I - if I could, in fact, yes, put $5,000 of my own money into my current vehicle rather than plinking down $35,000 for a hybrid, I'd love to do that just to make that…

FLATOW: Yeah, he's got the chassis, just needs the conversion, Tom.

Dr. FULLER: Right, and there are some companies that do that. I'm not sure I could give you any names off the top of my head, but there are companies that have - you know, small companies that have that as a business model to basically convert these to electric vehicles, and there are a number. If you go onto Amazon or some other site, you can find books that'll talk about converting these vehicles.

FLATOW: Of course, there…

Dr. FULLER: You should be able to…

FLATOW: A lot of Prius owners are already converting their cars to plug-ins around the country.

Dr. FULLER: Right, and I think you'll see more of that in the future. I think they really…

FLATOW: I talked to Toyota at the car fair, at the car show, and they said they might be doing it themselves.

Dr. FULLER: Right.

FLATOW: I'm a little concerned, Tom, to hear that you don't think there's enough money going into research on batteries, you know.

Dr. FULLER: I think there's no question about it, and I would say it's not just batteries but all of the energy technologies. I mean, just take a look at the amount of spending that goes into these things, and it could be solar, it could be fuel cells, and compare it to how many hours of consumption of petroleum it is, and you'll find that we're spending, you know, over a year we're spending on the order of what we spend on gasoline in an hour or so.

FLATOW: Just that little bit on research.

Dr. FULLER: That's right, and it's - I think we're going to need a lot more, and I would certainly encourage a lot more in solar, in batteries and wind technologies.

FLATOW: Talking with Tom Fuller at Georgia Tech Research Institute. Our number, 1-800-989-8255 on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

Do you smell politics here, Tom?

Dr. FULLER: Well, I think there's…

FLATOW: There's money locked up in the other energies that should be going to you?

Dr. FULLER: Well, I mean, when I say - no, not so much - I think fundamentally there's not enough money going into it. So I mean I hate to pit each other against each other and say we should take it away from solar and give it battery or this. I mean overall we're just not investing enough in this.

FLATOW: How much money - give me - I'm going to give you the blank check question I give people. How much money should we be sinking into this research?

Dr. FULLER: Into battery research?

FLATOW: Batteries, you know. Yeah, start with batteries.

Dr. FULLER: I mean, I think, you know, on the order of several hundred million or more per year, and that's just from, say, governmental spending. Industry is also going to be investing, but I think that's the kind of order of magnitude that you need to have to really make the breakthroughs in this area.

FLATOW: And fuel cells, I remember reading years ago that the fuel cell was patented in 1849.

Dr. FULLER: I think it's 1839, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FULLER: But you're right.

FLATOW: You're helping the cause.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FULLER: It's another 10 years, and it's not like - you know, you can look at fuel cells and you can look at energy-density batteries. They've made good progress. It's not been, you know, dramatic, but it's been steady progress, but you always have to compare it to the internal combustion engine and relatively inexpensive fossil fuels, and you know, even despite the, you know, increases in prices of, say, gasoline and natural gas, they're still relatively inexpensive, and we're not going to be able to compete for quite some time on just cost.

FLATOW: No, but you know, we're learning more and more now that global warming and whatever is a national security issue. You should be able to - that alone should be able to sell it on sinking more money into it.

Dr. FULLER: Right. I agree. It's been - that's been another area that's been slow to get people to respond to. I mean, I think it's taken us literally decades to reach a semi-consensus that we have this issue of carbon-dioxide emissions and global warming. You know, I don't know how long it's going to take us to decide to do something about it.

FLATOW: But you're of the opinion that if we did put enough effort into this, if we decided this was something - you know, I don't want to get into the we-can-put-a-man-on-the-moon analogy, but if you decided that we thought this was really important we wanted to move from a carbon-based, petroleum-based society to an electrical society where we're moving things possibly made from hydrogen or solar, wind power, electricity, batteries, we could do that if we just put the effort into it.

Dr. FULLER: I absolutely do believe that. I think once - people are going to want to have some sort of transportation similar to our automobile, and I think the demand will be there, and so if we had to do without petroleum, we could. We'd find a way. I have no doubt.

FLATOW: And we could do it in our lifetime.

Dr. FULLER: Yes.

FLATOW: And you're going to be working toward that in your lab?

Dr. FULLER: Yeah, so in our lab we do both fuel-cell and battery work, and you know, I think my sort of theme is I - you know, we have about 18 percent or so of the carbon dioxide is emitted by the transportation system, and I'd like to find a way to eliminate the carbon dioxide emissions from the transportation system.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you, Tom.

Dr. FULLER: All right, well thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you. Tom Fuller is principal research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the director of the Center for Innovative Fuel Cell and Battery Technologies there. He's also a professor in the department of chemical and biomedical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

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