Heroes in Engineering: A Conversation with the Director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR)

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The Argonne National Laboratory and the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR)

Argonne National Laboratory knows how to construct the future. It’s already done it. As the first designated national laboratory in the United States, its early years date back to the Manhattan Project and include the design of the world’s first power-producing nuclear reactors.

While the lab terminated its nuclear mission in 1994, it continues to hunt down advances in energy storage, renewable energy, and environmental sustainability. Since 2012, Argonne has been home to the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), which, as one of the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Energy Innovation Hubs, has the goal of advancing new forms of energy science and engineering from conceptualization to commercialization.

George Crabtree, senior scientist and distinguished fellow at Argonne National Laboratory, distinguished professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and director of the JCESR, sees energy storage research having major applications when it comes to electric vehicles (EVs) and the electric grid.

“Energy storage in the form of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries has been embraced by the EV industry and is projected for dramatic growth,” he says. “This is clearly an opportunity.”

Researchers are looking for ways to lower costs, increase EV range, extend battery life, compensate for cold weather, address safety, and accelerate charging times. If these things are achieved, EVs could compete with a traditional fuel-powered car in almost every category, and signal a major transition that would have tremendous impacts on the environment.

“With enough R&D,” Crabtree says, “these opportunities can be realized in five years or so.”

The term ‘electric vehicle’ doesn’t just refer to cars, either. The researchers at JCESR are also thinking of electric flight: air-taxis for commuters, VTOL package delivery, and regional passenger flight. But despite some promising projects from Boeing and Airbus, Crabtree sees many engineering challenges to overcome before electric flight becomes competitive with conventional flight.

Energy Storage and the Electrical Grid

A more practical application for advances in energy storage is in powering the electric grid.

“The electricity grid has been slower to take up energy storage, but the outlook is changing,” Crabtree says.

The grid needs an overhaul. New business plans need to combine storage with distributed energy resources and digital management systems. Storage needs to be integrated with wind and solar generation to provide power in response to varying demand. Regulatory barriers from an era before storage was readily available need to be revised. And the cost of storage needs to be lowered to a point more comparable with the cost of generation. There’s also the issue of scale.

“For the grid, we need very large capacity batteries, up to 1,000 times the capacity needed for an EV,” Crabtree says.

What is a Flow Battery?

One way of achieving that is through flow batteries: replacing a Li-on battery’s solid electrodes with liquid electrodes. Flow batteries have the ability to scale up to grid-capacity levels easily, and they can last up to 20 years instead of the eight years typical of Li-ion batteries. But flow batteries need to be much cheaper, work at higher voltages, and become more resilient to chemical degradation (their primary source of failure).

“Inexpensive flow batteries for the grid would be a game changing breakthrough that would open new horizons for greater reliability and resilience in grid operation and enable easier renewable integration,” Crabtree says.

Following this lead, JCESR is currently working on developing organic flow batteries that use new kinds of organic polymers that can be cheaper, work at higher voltages, and self-heal themselves when chemical degradation begins to limit performance.

“This is an entirely new and exciting direction in energy storage that could open wide new horizons,” Crabtree says.

Sounds like business as usual for Georgre Crabtree, JCESR, and Argonne National Laboratory.

Expert Spotlight: George Crabtree, Argonne National Laboratory, Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR)

George Crabtree

George Crabtree, PhD Argonne National Laboratory

Dr. George Crabtree is a senior scientist and distinguished fellow at Argonne National Laboratory; distinguished professor of physics, mechanical and electrical engineering at University of Illinois at Chicago; and director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR). He received his BS in science engineering, his MS in physics, and his PhD in condensed matter physics.

In the course of his distinguished career, he's published more than 440 scientific papers on topics that range from energy policy, to next-gen battery materials, to sustainable energy. He’s led Department of Energy (DOE) workshops on energy storage, co-chaired assessments of the DOE’s applied energy programs, and testified before Congress about the challenges and opportunities associated with sustainable energy. In 2018, Crabtree's team at JCESR received the Secretary of Energy's Achievement Award for its work in the future of next-gen batteries.

Three More Innovative Approaches to Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries are still the king, but people at JCESR and elsewhere are already looking elsewhere for possible breakthroughs.

Gravity Batteries. A brainchild of Energy Vault, a startup, gravitational energy storage thinks far outside the lithium-ion box. Their system uses a multi-headed crane to store energy in a tower of concrete blocks. When electric power is cheap (low demand), it lifts concrete blocks to the top of the tower in an optimized pattern. When electric power is expensive (high demand), the blocks are released into a freefall that powers an electric generator. Founded in 2017 through Bill Gates’s IdeaLab, Energy Vault has recently secured an additional $110 million in funding from SoftBank’s Vision Fund.

Thermal Batteries. A team at X, Alphabet’s ‘moonshot factory,’ envisions a grid-scale energy storage system that stores renewable energy as heat in molten salt and as cold in tanks of chilled liquid. This type of battery could store energy for days or even weeks, then discharge it back to the grid when demand was once again high. While it’s still a moonshot, it has two major things going for it: the materials are cheap, and the device could be reused repeatedly for up to 40 years.

Lithium-Air Batteries. While still theoretical, a lithium-air battery could significantly outperform a traditional lithium-ion battery in a few key ways. Composed of lithium and oxygen, a lithium-air battery is lighter weight and also much more energy dense. It would find immediate applications in EVs and the electricity grid. Challenges still exist, however, as chemical discharge can corrode such a battery, and a significant amount of energy can be lost through excessive heat. But that’s not stopping researchers: JCESR already has a promising and novel lithium-air battery in laboratory development.

How to Get Involved in Battery Systems Engineering

There are plenty of ways to become a battery expert, but a degree in engineering is a good start. Several subdisciplines of engineering have applications in the future of energy storage. While a bachelor’s degree may be enough to initially start working in the field, a master’s degree can allow one to specialize in a particular area of engineering and energy storage. And, if pure research and development is the goal, a doctoral degree is typically necessary.

Batteries are an extremely interdisciplinary subject that combines many subdisciplines of engineering and physics. Chemical and electrical engineering see batteries for what they are: an electrochemical system. Materials engineering examines how new and existing materials can be combined and manipulated to better store and transfer energy. Mechanical engineering works on integrating batteries into the systems that utilize them. Radical advances in batteries and energy storage will require the cooperation of all these fields of study, and more.

With a traditional background in a solid subdiscipline of engineering, a motivated engineer can go on to pursue further, specialized education in the field of energy storage. Opportunities for research and development exist in both the public and private sectors. Ultimately, the path you choose to become a battery expert should reflect your personal interest, curiosity, and vision for the field.

Resources for Battery Systems Engineers

To get involved in the ongoing conversation around energy storage and batteries, check out some of the resources below:

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