AFCEA Bethesda Smart Tech Symposium Interview Series: Alex Teran, PhD Candidate at UC Berkeley
On October 23, AFCEA Bethesda hosted an innovative educational symposium for government and industry participants who are or want to be on the cutting edge of smart technology and sustainability. The goals of the event were to make the business case for sustainability, show “big data” applications for energy management, highlight accomplishments with smart building technologies, illustrate saving from effective Federal fleet management, data center energy efficiencies and sustainability leading practices, articulate the connection between data centers and sustainability, and explain the impact of recent regulations and policy related to sustainability for IT procurement.
The AFCEA Smart Tech Symposium Social Media Team put together a mini series of interviews with Academic Experts on related subject matter, to get them to provide insight into their research and how they play a part in building the business case for sustainability on a daily basis through their work.
Our fifth interview is with Alex Teran, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, working in the Battery IdeaLab. The Battery IdeaLab was founded by UC Berkeley students in 2008. The purpose of the group is to foster creative thinking and collaboration amongst battery researchers at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Members of the group study diverse topics in batteries including modeling and simulation, material characterization and design, and full battery processing and optimization. Their diverse backgrounds are complementary, thus strengthening their individual research projects.
Alex, can you give us a brief description of your research and your interests in alternative energy and how it relates to practical applications?
Energy storage remains one of the fundamental barriers to the electrification of the transportation sector as well as higher penetration of renewable energy on the grid, however current battery technology is not well suited for use in either application. My work focuses on developing high energy lithium metal batteries using solid polymer electrolytes, primarily focused on use in electric vehicles. The solid, polymer electrolytes enables the use of higher energy density chemistries while removing the volatile, liquid electrolytes that pose safety concerns in traditional lithium-ion batteries.
Tell us about how your research fits into the broader framework of building a business case for sustainability.
Energy storage is an enabling technology for other sustainability-oriented initiatives, such as the increased use of electric vehicles and enhanced grid-integration of renewable electricity generation. In that sense, the cheaper and more effective we can make batteries, the better the economics look for these other technologies.
What key factors are necessary to increase the presence of electric vehicles, fuel cell vehicles and other more energy efficient transportation technologies into the market place?
The biggest factor is cost, both long-term maintenance and initial purchase price. Consumers expect a vehicle comparable to their current vehicle, and that includes a battery pack will last the lifetime of the car without significant degradation. This is a major concern for automakers because these cells have not been tested over the course of thousands of real world cycles over a decade or more. If battery packs start degrading prematurely, the cost to replace them is unacceptably high. With regards to initial purchase price, costs of the battery packs will continue to decrease slowly as the industry gains more experience with manufacturing and vehicle integration. However the cost per kWh can be driven down much more significantly by fundamental breakthroughs in battery chemistry that increase the overall energy density of the cells.
How do the batteries that you work on differ than the typical lithium ion battery technology in our laptops and mobile devices?
Lithium-ion batteries today consist of two ‘intercalation’ electrodes separated by a separator and flooded with liquid electrolyte. The intercalation electrodes act as scaffold material for the lithium to insert or ‘intercalate’ upon cycling. This concept is what first enabled lithium-ion batteries in the early 1990’s and is still in use today; however the large fraction of electrochemically inactive scaffold material limits the ability to achieve higher energy densities. To move to higher energy densities, we must abandon this paradigm, and shift to ‘conversion’ electrodes, where a much greater fraction of the material in the electrodes participates in the electrochemical reactions. Additionally, the liquid electrolyte used in current batteries is volatile and combustible, posing serious safety concerns, especially in the event of thermal runaway in a cell. Our technology replaces the liquid electrolyte and separator with a solid, polymer that is able to conduct lithium ions while enabling the use of high energy density conversion chemistries, such as lithium metal and sulfur.
What kind of infrastructure changes would make the research of you and your peers feasible for widespread implementation?
As electric vehicles become more common, increased access to charging stations will become necessary and additional transmission lines will be required to bring electricity generated by solar and wind farms to population centers. However the most important changes must come from the policy and regulatory side, such as putting a price on carbon emissions or increasing the gasoline tax to levels more comparable with the rest of the developed world in order to make electric vehicles more economically appealing. Additionally, adopting regulations that properly recognize the value of energy storage on the grid and financially compensate owners and operators will make it a more attractive investment and lead to more widespread implementation.
Do you think attention will shift away from alternative energy sources for transportation because of the recent findings of large reserves of shale gas and shale oil in the US? How can the scientific community continue to promote the merits of renewable energy to consumers?
There is no doubt that long term we must move away from extractive, non-renewable fuel sources. Fossil fuels will continue to play a role in our energy mix for decades to come, however the more quickly we can make the cleaner, more sustainable alternatives economically competitive, the more quickly we will see the transition. This must be done through a combination of continued research and development of these technologies, as well as forward-looking policy and regulatory decisions.
A very special thank you to Alex Teran for giving us his time and insight into how his research helps consumers, businesses, and policy wonks understand how they can play a part in solving the energy equation.