Inside The Race To Build A Battery That Can Power The 21st Century

The garage startup has become as much of an American icon in the twenty first century as the automobile and the drive-in were to earlier generations. The idea that anyone with an idea can change the world is as romantic as democracy itself, but it’s not altogether true. A garage startup only works if there is existing technology to build on top of. The problem is that every technology eventually runs out of steam. When that happens, progress will grind to a halt without a significant breakthrough. As technology becomes more complex, that type of advancement becomes so hard to achieve that it becomes out of reach for any single organization, much less a few guys in a garage. That is essentially where we are with energy storage. Lithium-ion, the 40 year-old technology that powers everything from smartphones to electric cars is nearing its theoretical limits just as the renewable energy revolution is demanding cheaper batteries that can store more energy at lower cost. Solving problems like these requires a massively collaborative approach. A Brief History Of Energy Storage The lithium-ion battery was originally discovered by the American scientist John Goodenough, in 1979, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Over the next decade, the technology steadily improved and by the early 1990s, it became commercially available in Sony Camcorders. Since then, lithium-ion batteries have increased in energy density by a factor of six, while costs have dropped by a factor of 10. That’s made them good enough to power our phones and laptops, but they’re still not powerful enough — or cheap enough — to power electric cars or the electric grid. Experts believe that to create a true transformation, battery costs need be below $100/ Kw/hour and the current technology is unlikely to get us there. So getting where we need to be is not a matter of simply improving efficiency, we have to come up with completely new materials with greater energy density and lower cost. When the Department of Energy began thinking about how to solve such an enormous and seemingly intractable problem, it realized that it needed to take a very different approach. The result is the Joint Center For Energy Storage Research (JCESR), which is currently in the fourth year of its five year mandate to develop next generation batteries. Pooling Scientific Knowledge The basic idea behind JCESR is that the knowledge required to create a breakthrough solution is spread out among a diverse number of scientists working at a wide variety of institutions, such as the national labs and academic institutions. So the first step was to combine their talents and coordinate research through a single hub focused on the energy storage problem. Venkat Srinivasan, Deputy Director, Research and Development at JCESR explains, “National labs tend to have bigger teams of people working on bigger problems, while academic researchers are more specialized in their expertise. Our structure allows us to access stars in the academic world and apply their specific expertise to the problem of next generation storage.” “For example,” he continues, “Matthew Sigman and Shelley Minteer at the University of Utah have done pathbreaking work in chemical stability in the pharmaceutical field, but we recognized that the same technology can help us make better batteries. Their work has really propelled our mission forward, while working on batteries has taken their research into new areas.” So combining the expertise of five national labs along with a number of the country’s top universities gives JCESR an incredible amount of scientific talent. Yet the battery problem is about more than science. The aim is to come up with a solution that not only works, but can win in the marketplace, which is why getting input from private companies is crucial. Bringing In Private Industry Scientists are focused on discovering new phenomena, but have little insight into the practicalities of the marketplace. For example, a researcher that discovers a new material with vastly more energy density than current batteries will have no idea whether it is feasible to procure, manufacture and distribute. That’s a big problem, because by the time a scientist verifies his results, prepares them for publication and goes through peer review, it can take years before he realizes that he wasted his time. So getting input from partners and affiliates in the private sector has been invaluable for focusing research at JCESR on the most promising paths to a better battery. It has also greatly benefitted the companies that have participated. As Brian Cooke, a Group Vice President at Johnson Controls told me, “We saw our involvement as an opportunity to shape the future, so the science coming out of JCESR would have the greatest benefit for our customers, our company and our industry. It has also enabled us to interact with top notch researchers from some of the country’s best labs.” Yet it isn’t just big companies that are benefitting. Through JCESR’s affiliate program even small companies can participate, which gives them a better idea of how to focus their efforts. That’s especially important for firms that can’t afford to go off in the wrong direction and waste limited resources. Mike Wixom of Navitas, a four year old company that focuses on military and industrial applications, told me, “As a small company, we’re fighting for our survival on a daily basis. Becoming JCESR affiliate gives us an early peek at technology and you get to give feedback about what kinds manufacturing issues are likely to come up with any particular chemistry.” Innovating The Discovery Process Historically, the process of making a new battery has been mostly trial and error. Building a battery for use in a car has vastly different requirements than, say, for the grid or a power tool. So, for the most part, battery developers experimented with different combinations until they get the right specifications for the product they were trying to make. One of the major achievements at JCESR has been to build tools to make this process more rational and efficient. The first is a computer model that analyzes the complex interplay between technical and economic factors that a battery will need to achieve. The second is materials and electrolytes “genomes” that known properties of the various possibilities. “Moving to the materials genome is like moving from your local library to the Internet,” says Mike Andrew, a […]

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Innovation is Combination

Much has been made about the difference between innovation and invention. One writer went as far as to argue that Steve Jobs development of the iPod wasn’t an innovation because it was dependent on so much that came before it. A real innovation, so the argument goes, must be truly transformational, like the IBM PC, which created an entire industry. The problem with these kind of word games is that they lead us to an infinite regress. The IBM PC can be seen as the logical extension of the microchip, which was the logical extension of the transistor. These, in turn, rose in part through earlier developments, such Turing’s universal computer and the completely irrational science of quantum mechanics. The truth is that innovation is never a single event, but happens when fundamental concepts combine with important problems to create an impact. Traditionally, that’s been done within a particular organization or field, but to come up with breakthrough ideas in the 21st century, we increasingly need to transcend conventional boundaries of company and industry. Transforming Alchemy Into Chemistry Everybody knows the story of Benjamin Franklin and his famous kite, but few have ever heard of John Dalton and his law of multiple proportions. What Dalton noticed was that if you combine two or more elements, the weight resulting compound will be proportional to its components. That may seem vague, but it did more for electricity than Franklin ever did. The reason that Dalton’s obscure law became so important is that it led him to invent the modern concept of atoms and, in doing so, transformed the strange art of alchemy into the hard science of chemistry. Once matter could be reduced down to a single, fundamental concept, it could be combined to make new and wondrous things. Dmitri Mendeleev transformed Dalton’s insight into the periodic table, transforming the lives of high school students and major chemical corporations alike. Michael Faraday’s chemical experiments led to his development of the dynamo and the electric motor, which in turn led to Edison’s electric light, modern home appliances and even IBM’s PC and Apple’s iPod. Which of these are inventions and which are innovations? It’s impossible to tell and silly to argue about. What’s clear is none are the product of a single idea, but are all combinations of ideas built on the foundation that Dalton created. Merging Man and Machine In the early 1960s, IBM made what was perhaps the biggest gamble in corporate history. Although it was already the clear leader in the computer industry, it invested $5 billion — in 1960 dollars, worth more than $30 billion today — on a new line of computers, the 360 series, which would make all of its existing products obsolete. The rest, as the say, is history. The 360 series was more than just a product, it was a whole new way of thinking about computers. Before, computers were highly specialized machines designed to do specific jobs. IBM’s new product line, however, offered a wide range of capabilities, allowing customers to add to their initial purchase as their business grew. It would dominate the industry for decades. When Fred Brooks, who led the project, looked back a half century later, he said that the most important decision he made was to switch from a 6-bit byte to an 8-bit byte, which enabled the use of lowercase letters. Considering the size of the investment and the business it created, that may seem like a minor detail. But consider this: That single decision merged the language of machines with the language of humans into a fundamental unit. In effect, the 8-bit byte transformed computers from obscure calculating machines into a collaboration tool. Learning The Language of Life Much like Dalton came up with the fundamental unit of chemistry, a century later Wilhelm Johannsen developed the fundamental unit of biology in 1909: the gene. This too was a combination — and also a refinement — of earlier ideas from men like Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and others. However, for scientists of the early twentieth century, a gene was little more than a concept. No one knew what a gene was made of or even where they could be found. It was little more of an abstract idea until Watson and Crick discovered the structure and function of DNA. Even then, there was little we could do with genes except know that they were there. That changed when the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003 and unleashed the new field of genomics. Today, genetic treatments for cancer have become common and, with prices for genetic sequencing falling faster than those for computer chips, we can expect gene therapies to be applied to a much wider array of ailments over the next decade. Yet these new developments are not the product of just biologists. The challenges of gene mapping required massive computing power. So researchers working on genes needed to work closely with computer scientists to put supercomputers to work helping to solve the problem. A New Era of Innovation The confusion about innovation and invention reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about how innovation really works. The idea that certain ideas are flashes of divine inspiration while others are merely riffs off of earlier tunes sung long ago fails to recognize that all innovations are combinations. Over the last century, most inventions have been combinations of fundamental units. Many important products, from household goods to miracle cures, have been developed through combining atoms in new and important ways. Learning how to combine bytes of information gave rise to the computer industry and we’re now learning how to combine genes. The 21st century, however, will give rise to a new era of innovation in which we combine not just fundamental elements, but entire fields of endeavor. As Dr. Angel Diaz, IBM’s VP of Cloud Technology & Architecture told me, “We need computer scientists working with cancer scientists, with climate scientists and with experts in many other fields to tackle grand challenges and make large impacts on the world.” Today, it takes more than just a big idea to innovate. Increasingly, collaboration is becoming a key competitive advantage because you need to combine ideas from widely disparate fields. So if you want to innovate, don’t sit around waiting for a great eureka moment — look for what you can combine […]

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How Being More Observant Makes You More Creative

Creative people notice more. Curiosity is such an important human trait. It helps us as a species survive. While dinosaurs were looking for more to eat, human beings were banding together to forming hunting parties, grinding grains to make them more digestible, and experimenting with fire. I’m not sure if it was a man or a woman who first observed that the ground grain tasted better after being a fire, but it was a very clever idea. Have you ever noticed how curious babies are? As most of us get older, that sense of wonderment with the world diminishes. It’s because to be more efficient, we form habits and then don’t really observe what’s around us. How many different kinds of trees do you pass in a single walk around the block? Unless you are an arborist or on a nature walk, it’s probably none. I suggest that at least once a week you take an observation walk. Pick a category to observe – it could be trees, or flowers, or building materials. It’s a great game to play with a child. You can teach yourself to be more observant. This increases your flexibility and capacity for creativity. Being observant is like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. By Dr. Sabra Brock, co-founder of Idea Spies

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Raising Your Mindfulness Quotient

It’s a clever idea to be aware of where you are from moment to moment, not just your immediate environment but also how you’re thinking and feeling about it. The focus can be as simple as tasting, really tasting the food you’re having for lunch. I once went through an exercise where students were asked to spend 60 seconds eating a raisin, a single raisin. Amazing how much there is to absorb first, just in looking at the raisin, the subtle variations in color and texture of the surface. And most raisins look different as you rotate from back to front (if a raisin can be considered to have a front and a back). If you use your imagination, you can imagine the grape the raisin once was, where it grew, how many siblings on clump. There’s even more to experience as you slowly taste the raisin and chew it. Differences from the front to the back of your tongue. I could go on, but the whole exercise is meant to illustrate a mindful approach to an everyday experience. The art of mindfulness goes back to early civilization and it’s the subject of a number of serious research studies. The net, net is that as you increase your number of mindful moments, your experience of life deepens. Most of us won’t be mindful every moment, but raising your mindfulness quotient can make fewer of your moments ones that you miss. I think of this when I see art representing the major tragedies we experience.   I pass this Tree Root Art every day. Its story is particularly poignant because the tree’s uprooting was the only damage to St. Paul’s Chapel in the 9/11 attacks even though the church is immediately across the street from where the World Trade Center Towers stood   By Dr. Sabra Brock, co-founder of Idea Spies

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