DOE Awards $43 Million for Battery Tech

By · August 02, 2012

Ford Fusion Energi

The Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid, seen here at its debut in Detroit, was launched with a little help from ARPA-E. (Jim Motavalli photo)

For 19 companies, research centers and universities, Thursday was the day their government ship came in. The Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), launched in 2009 to fund “breakthrough” technology, announced $43 million in grants (actually, “cooperative research agreements”) to further electric vehicle and smart grid technologies.

Some $13 million went to seven projects aimed at pursuing “cutting-edge energy storage developments for stationary power and electric vehicles.” The other $30 million aims to maximize the potential of existing battery technology.

A big question here is whether these grants will be seen as what they are--legitimate funding of science--and not get highly politicized. The failure of solar producer Solyndra (which got $500 million) in an election year has created a poisonous atmosphere for clean tech government funding.

Raking in the Moolah

Among the EV battery recipients were: GE Global Research ($3.1 million), Ford (also $3.1 million), the Palo Alto Research Center ($4 million) and Oak Ridge National Laboratories ($4 million). Universities raking in cash are Penn State, Utah State (which got $3 million for power management of large packs) and Washington University in St. Louis.

The terms of the grants are highly technical (GE will “develop thin-film sensors that enable real-time, two-dimensional mapping of temperature and surface pressure for each cell within a battery pack”), but all aimed at improving the range, cost and general attractiveness of electric cars as a consumer product.

Eric Toone, acting head of ARPA-E and principal deputy director, was candid in an interview about what he’d like to see the grants accomplish. “We want to enable the deployment of EVs, and that includes addressing battery cost and energy density, range anxiety and safety.” Much of the work is centered on making the dominant lithium-ion tech work better, but Toone also sounded encouraging words about lithium-air and lithium-sulfur chemistries, as well as further-out solid-state batteries (with no liquid catalyst).

“There are some chemistries that have huge potential to achieve beyond far lithium-ion,” Toone said. “We’ve looked at solid-state batteries, and they certainly could prove important, but they have a longer timeline and are not currently a focus.”

DOE's Success Story

ARPA-E likes success stories, and one of them—at least potentially—is about its grant recipient Envia Systems, which startled the known world by announcing that not only could its lithium-ion battery packs greatly increase range and cut costs in half, but they’d be in cars in a relatively short time frame.

The company’s CEO, Atul Kapadia, told me last February that its cells will cost 45 percent of those available today, will weigh less and have almost triple the energy density. “We will be able to make smaller automotive packs that are also less heavy and much cheaper,” he said.

Envia battery technology

Envia's technical secrets: A big government thumbs up. (Envia photo)

The claim lacked a government thumbs up, but Toone is more than willing to supply it. “Envia definitely has had a battery breakthrough,” he said. “And they’re far along. The batteries have to be tested and deployed, and there is still a great amount of work to do, but they’ve moved beyond the bench scale.”

I asked Toone for a five-year horizon: What will be on the road in 2018? “Certainly in five years we’ll see a number of battery chemistries—the palate of solutions will be much larger than today. Will we see a Leaf with metal-air batteries? I certainly can’t say that with confidence.”

On the slow rate of EV adoption, Toone counsels patience. “It took Toyota 14 years to sell two million hybrids,” he said. “You have to start somewhere. I applaud Chevrolet and Nissan for being pioneers in the space.”

Critics who’ve accused the government of picking favorites (and sometimes favoring specific regions, such as Michigan, in the awarding of previous federal battery awards) should know that ARPA-E is determinedly non-partisan. “We are extraordinarily apolitical,” he said. “It’s a real techie bunch here. The people come from industry and academia to serve their country for a few years, and then go home.”

Ford received $10 million in DOE research funds in 2009 to develop a fleet of 20 plug-in hybrids. The money appears to have borne fruit, because Ford has PHEV versions of the Fusion and C-MAX now.

Ford said that for the latest grant it will partner with a Texas company, Arbin Instruments, to develop a high-tech battery life testing and monitoring device that will approve diagnostics in pack development.

Toone told the Detroit Free Press, “If you look at the total amount of storage space that there is in a battery, and then you start knocking stuff out for safety, security…by the time all is said and done, you’re only using a quarter to a third of the space in a battery.” The Ford tool would allow a larger part of the battery to be used or actually powering the car. “I think you’re talking about at least doubling” the efficiency of a battery, he told the paper.

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