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Powering up to solve energy storage challenges


By Oliver Peckham

Newswise — Let’s go back to 2006. Electric vehicles (EVs) were emerging, but despite growing pressure to decarbonize the energy sector, the research community had not widely recognized the importance of energy storage. At the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), battery research was virtually nonexistent.

Today, PNNL is recognized for its battery research and leads several major energy storage programs for the Department of Energy (DOE). So: how did PNNL evolve from a new player to a leader in advanced storage for electric vehicles and the grid?


In the mid-2000s, PNNL asked a daunting question: What was the most important problem its researchers could solve with their materials science expertise?

A group led by Jun Liu– at the time a materials scientist and laboratory researcher at PNNL – coordinated a year of reflection. Through discussions with experts from labs, industry and government, the group arrived at an answer: energy storage. With the rise of renewable energy and growing frustration with fossil fuels, the country needed a reliable and powerful system. batteries…not only for transport, but also for the network.

The team defined the initiative by conducting the first-ever quantitative analysis of national energy storage needs and mapping the intellectual property landscape to understand where the United States and PNNL could play a leadership role .

“PNNL had strengths in materials science, characterization tools and simulations, but we needed a strategy to apply and expand these capabilities to address the scientific challenges of energy storage,” said Liu , now a Battelle Fellow and holder of a joint appointment with the University. of Washington.

In 2007, PNNL launched the Transformational Materials Science Initiative, a five-year, $7 million internal investment led by Liu and Jud Virdenwhich now serves as Associate Director of the Energy and Environment Laboratory.

“The initiative really jump-started our efforts in grid energy storage,” Virden said. “This allowed us to bring together researchers from different disciplines to focus on key scientific challenges.”


Initial research under the initiative on sulfur-based lithium and silicon anodes batterieshigh-voltage cathodes, functional electrolytes and more: fundamental knowledge gained to support the next generation batteries“>Battery technologies.

Projects ran the gamut from vehicle battery compositions (such as lithium-oxygen and lithium-sulfur) to grid-adapted redox flow. batteries which prioritized energy capacity (watt hours) over energy density (watt hours per cubic meter). PNNL has developed capabilities to monitor battery degradation, including the unprecedented ability to use electron microscopes to observe declining battery capacity in real time.

More work on batteries poured in. DARPA funded PNNL’s research on high-energy primary lithium-air. batteries. PNNL won the top prize awarded under the ARPA-E program for a proposal to reduce operating temperatures of sodium-based products. batteries— the research that led to these batteries operating at 50% lower temperatures.

DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office (VTO) selected PNNL’s proposals for competitive battery programs, and the Office of Electricity (OE) selected PNNL for its first major investment in energy storage research on network. Through this latest project, PNNL developed electrolytes that improved batteries‘ energy densities and operating temperatures. These electrolytes are now licensed to several companies.

In the early 2010s, PNNL battery researchers partnered with other national laboratories and the Office of Science to coordinate energy storage research. In 2012, this effort was formalized when the DOE, seeing the value of combining this expertise, launched the Joint Energy Storage Research Center with the PNNL as a partner.

Capacity Building

As interest in electric vehicles grew, battery range posed problems. In 2016, DOE selected a PNNL-led team to lead one of the largest electric vehicle battery research programs in the world: the Battery500 Consortium. The program, led by Liu, aims to help create rechargeable lithium-metal electric vehicles batteriesdelivering 500 watt hours per kilogram, twice the current best in class, over 1,000 charge-discharge cycles.

The first phase of the consortium produced a 350 watt-hour/kilogram lithium-metal battery prototype with a lifespan of 600 cycles– a record step towards lighter, more durable and cheaper electric vehicles. Now in its second phase, the consortium has started demonstrating 400-450 watt hours/kilogram batteries with stable cyclingclose to its overall objective.

In 2019, two of the consortium’s lead researchers, John Goodenough (professor at the University of Texas at Austin) and Stan Whittingham, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their pioneering battery research.

“Battery500 is the result of a tremendous collaborative effort, in which we have made key advances without the hype that is all too common today,” said Whittingham, distinguished professor of chemistry at Binghamton University. “However, I have found that the most rewarding part, besides the scientific achievements, has been seeing young scientists grow and move into key leadership positions.”

“The success of the consortium does not only lie in the development of the new generation batteries“, Liu added. “It also depends on how we identified scientific problems, aligned resources to address challenges, improved the way people worked together, and even how we established community standards on how to conduct battery research.”

Generate momentum

Now large-scale, PNNL’s energy storage programs have resulted in countless patent applications and high-impact articles. Lab advances: numerous licensable-address longevity, abilityAnd cold weather performanceand have improved batteries“>technologies of batteries“>lithium-ion and lithium metal batteries has to flow And batteries-horizon”>sodium ions batteries.

“PNNL’s approach was to integrate basic research with practical applications and collaborate with others,” Virden said. “Integrating and coordinating scientific discovery with technology development allows PNNL to have a tremendous impact on the energy storage community.”

PNNL’s energy storage laboratories are now full of much cited-And frequently rented-researchers. Some scientists hired under the 2007 initiative are now senior researchers at PNNL, leading national battery programs and cultivating new talent. (To this end, PNNL also offers internships and scholarships in energy storage.)

Current affairs

Increasingly, PNNL is working with partners like batteries“>Albemarle Corporation and Applied Materials to reduce risks batteries“> making materials and deploying new storage technologies in the real world. “The common thread of PNNL is there, from the high-quality scientific papers to these industrial investments,” Virden said.

Other ongoing industry partnerships include a collaboration with GM and the University of Washington to batteries-horizon”>profitably produce single-crystal cathodes and work with ESS, Chemous, Otoro Energy, and DOE’s Office of Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies to apply AI to streamline battery manufacturing.

The PNNL also leads the batteries“>new cathode-electrolyte interphase consortium, sponsored by VTO, which focuses on the layers between the cathodes and electrolytes of lithium-ion batteries, a major determinant of battery performance. Jie Xiao, the first postdoc hired into the framework of the PNNL initiative in 2007, leads the consortium. Xiao is now a Battelle member, leading the Battery Materials & Systems Group, which has more than 70 PNNL members.

Last year, PNNL and five other national laboratories were selected by OE to form the Rapid Operational Validation Initiative, which applies AI validate the performance of new energy storage systems.

Soon, the PNNL will open the Grid Storage Launchpad— a $75 million facility funded by OE, with additional investments from Washington State, Battelle and PNNL. Here, PNNL researchers will test the new generation batteries up to 100 kW under realistic grid conditions. The building will also house PNNL’s EV battery research.

“The Grid Storage Launchpad will add national capacity for rigorous testing and battery development,” Virden said. “Energy storage remains a critical challenge for the country, and we are excited to continue working with our industry and academic partners to accelerate our transition to a resilient, carbon-free energy infrastructure.”

All things considered, we are a long way from the state of the laboratory’s research on energy storage in 2007 and a paradigm shift in the grid energy storage landscape.

“Starting a network battery research program was a bold idea at the time,” Virden recalls. “We set out to work with the nation’s best researchers to identify areas where we could have the greatest national impact, which is exactly what a national laboratory should do. »


About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinctive strengths in chemistry, Earth Science, biology And data science advance scientific knowledge and meet challenges sustainable energy And national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is managed by Battelle on behalf of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit For more information about PNNL, visit PNNL News Center. follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn And Instagram.


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