The past few months have been difficult for many in the advanced battery industry. A discouraging analysis by EPRI as to the relative costs and benefits of grid storage, slow sales of the Chevy Volt and the Nissan LEAF, earnings disappointments at several advanced battery companies and the possible break-up of one of the industry’s potential leading players, JCI-Saft Power Systems, cannot help but to call into question the very future of the advanced battery industry. The ability to store electrical energy in an efficient and light weight form has the promise to solve many critical social problems. But the world does not always beat a path to the better mousetrap. The last few months have led me to wonder whether we might not be betting on the wrong technology.
This week, in as much a test of faith as a search for information, I attended the “Beyond Lithium Ion” conference at Northwest Pacific National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. The conference discussed the status of research into the battery technologies that are expected eventually to replace lithium-ion chemistries in traction and grid-connected stationary batteries, with a focus on lithium-air and lithium-sulfur systems. I attended for the purpose of discovering how long we will have to wait for the technologies that may one day permit advanced batteries to fulfill their social potential.
I am happy to report that I came away inspired, but not in the way I had hoped. The truth, as near as I can tell it (I suspect I was the only non-scientist at the conference), is that mass-market commercial systems employing lithium-air and lithium-sulfur technology are still years away. There are fundamental scientific problems in both technologies that need to be solved. There is even the possibility of a “show stopper”--a problem in the technologies that might ultimately make them unusable in commercial applications or, more likely, unable to improve significantly on the performance of existing lithium-ion systems. More basic research is needed on both technologies before these systems can be moved into practical, mass market applications.