To Argonne National Laboratory scientist Venkat Srinivasan, batteries are the single-most important technological revolution of our time.
He began studying batteries more than two decades ago and now leads one of the nation’s top energy storage research labs as director of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS). When he thinks What the Future, he sees batteries as the key to power all our stuff, with less environmental waste.
Kate MacArthur: Is there some other energy source that could replace wasteful coal and petroleum but power our cars and homes with the same efficiency?
Venkat Srinivasan: For an electric car, I believe that batteries will reach a stage where you will not compromise on any of the metrics you have today. But electricity generation is a different story. Batteries don’t generate electricity. Batteries store electricity. So, when it comes to powering the electric grid — our homes, our buildings, our industries — it’s becoming clear that renewables like solar and wind energy, and nuclear maybe, are going to add more and more of a mix. In all of that, ensuring that things are resilient will involve energy stored somewhere. In that case, energy storage becomes an enabling technology.
MacArthur: Affordability is the big question about batteries. What compromises do we have to make sure everyone has access?
Srinivasan: Batteries are all about compromises. Let’s take an electric car, a simple one. You don’t want it to be a 50-mile electric car. You want it to be 300 miles. You want it to charge fast. You want it to cost as much as a gasoline car would cost. You want it to last a long time. You want it to be safe. You want to be able to park it in the Chicago winter for 24 hours, come back and start the car. You want to be able to use it in Arizona without any problems, right? Hopefully, you want to make sure that the materials are coming from some sort of a renewable source. And you want to make sure it’s recyclable. Guess what? All of these are very difficult metrics to meet simultaneously.
MacArthur: And that’s just cars.
Srinivasan: Every person who has used a cell phone knows this, right? I mean, the battery gets better, but the cell phone makers add more features. They’re going to add automation to our cars, which is going to suck more power, which means our batteries may not last as long. And there’s going to be the push and pull of the technologies. Same for the grid, right? There is a reason why not all of us have already been talking about buying a battery for our homes. That’s because it remains sort of expensive.
MacArthur: These alternative energy programs are largely available to the wealthy. What will it take to make them available to everybody?
Srinivasan: I used to live in California for many years. When I saw solar really have an inflection in California was when leasing became the reality. I think that’s what we need for home energy storage to take off. But it’ll take longer for it to make sense for places like where we live [in Illinois] where electricity is cheaper.
MacArthur: We know that battery components are not environmentally benign. How do we make decisions about their various tradeoffs and be less wasteful?
Srinivasan: We want a battery that will last 100 years. We really want a complete, holistic relook – to use materials in batteries that are easily available and sustainable. So, eliminate stuff that is hard to either pull from the ground or that’s coming from places we don’t want it to come from, or that’s not going to power all of the things that we want to power. We want something you can use for however many years you can, decades and maybe multiple decades before you have to start thinking about throwing them away. Then we want to make sure that we never throw the materials away, but we bring them back to life through recycling.
MacArthur: What about for smaller batteries?
Srinivasan: Collection of batteries is a super important problem, especially because of all the small devices that have batteries in them. I’m looking at my table, and I have five devices with batteries in them, and that’s just my table. It will come down to a business plan. You need to have an economic recycling technology in place so that businesses start to develop around this. I believe that that’s really the most important thing that we need to be thinking about.
MacArthur: Are there examples of how to make battery recycling work, where companies are doing their share, and consumers are doing theirs?
Srinivasan: Apple has started to take back their old phones. And depending upon the age of the device, they give you either some amount of money, or they say there’s no money associated with it, but just send it back to be recycled responsibly. And that’s because there are two things to it: One, if I am a company of that stature or following, you don’t want to have a reputation that you’re not thinking about what happens to these devices at end of life. So that is a huge incentive. And maybe part of the consumer’s job is to make sure that we tell them, “Hey, that’s an important part of how we view you, and therefore I’m expecting you to do your part.”