The Oil and the Glory

How the U.S. may win the battery race

How the U.S. may win the battery race

Arpa-E — the federal agency that funds radical research into energy breakthroughs — says that six of the companies in which it’s invested have already begun receiving injections of private investment. They include solar and wind turbine companies, but as we’ve discussed, the most important discovery that any clean-energy research project could make would be a far cheaper and more powerful battery. Two of the companies singled out last week by Arpa-E are battery companies, and I got the chief technology officer of one of them — Sujeet Kumar, co-founder and president of California-based Envia Systems — on the phone. An Envia advance that could lower the cost of lithium-ion car batteries by a third has captured the attention of a car company sorely in need of just that product — General Motors, whose Volt at the moment costs $41,000. General Motors is now one of Envia’s newest investors.

Back in the middle part of the last decade, Kumar told me, he wondered why the United States leads the world in the production of battery-operated medical devices, but is nowhere when it comes to battery-operated consumer electronics. In 2007, Kumar decided to dive into part of the larger market and figure out how to break into advanced automotive batteries. He left his job as principal scientist for a California-based medical device company called Nanogram Devices.

One of the fastest ways to penetrate a technology is to find and license someone else’s unattached yet highly promising patent and build a company around it, and that’s the strategy that Kumar adopted. He began to scour the journals for what was out there, which led him to Argonne National Laboratory, outside Chicago.

There, he read about a patent for an alloy called nickel manganese cobalt, or NMC. Two of Argonne’s resident geniuses — Michael Thackeray and Khalil Amine — along with a couple of other colleagues had devised this alloy for the cathode, or negative terminal, in a lithium-ion battery. The cathode is pernicious — it can account for 40 percent of a battery’s cost. And the battery can account for a third or 40 percent of a hybrid or electric car’s cost. Most of the batteries out there use cobalt for their cathodes, which makes them really, really expensive. Thackeray and Amine’s brainchild was to switch in manganese, which, located in large quantities on every continent, is supercheap. Not only that, it also acts chemically to quiet down the volatile qualities of cobalt and nickel, rendering the resulting battery much less prone to fire.

To Kumar’s surprise, almost no one had caught on to this breakthrough. Kumar paid a visit at Argonne and announced that he wanted to build a company around NMC. Grand, Argonne’s patent team replied, and a license was produced. Four years later, Kumar says that in his own lab, he has improved on Thackeray’s and Amine’s work, allowing a battery to store half-again as much energy. He calls the advance high capacity manganese rich, or HCMR. When used in a battery’s cathode, it can lower the cost of a battery up to half or can make it half-again as powerful, Kumar says. Now, he needs to fix up the battery’s corresponding component — the anode, or positive terminal — in line with the improvement. He has received Arpa-E funding for that research.

GM is investing in the advance. It has thrown a full 7 percent of its total venture-capital fund, or $7 million, into the company, which doesn’t sound like much, until you understand that it doesn’t cost a lot to run a lab developing anodes for lithium-ion batteries. GM has also licensed NMC from Argonne.

Once you get there, he says, you are at the edge of physics — lithium-ion batteries can’t store more energy than 400 watt-hours per kilogram, versus the 200 to 250 watt-hours per kilogram in current state-of-the-art batteries. Some new technology will have to be invented. But that jump, he says, will be sufficient to more or less make hybrids and electric cars profitable. "Remember how long the lead-acid battery has been with us," meaning about a century and a half, Kumar said.

In short, Kumar and Argonne are playing the long game. The battle to dominate advanced batteries and electric cars is one of the most tension-filled commercial races of our time. Kumar thinks that HCMR puts the United States into the same place it holds in medical devices.