Daniel Oberhaus: Our Super-Charged Future (re-broadcast)

New iterations of the smartphone often focus on bells, whistles and other fancy features, when what we all really want for our devices are batteries that last longer. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with technology writer and battery expert Daniel Oberhaus about the latest developments in the energy storage space. We learn about the role that solid state and lithium-silicon batteries may play in the machines of tomorrow, how artificial intelligence may improve battery life, and the progress being made to create recyclable batteries.

Narrator  0:02 This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Daniel Oberhaus (DO)  0:16 Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing with the battery space is that nothing is ever moved as fast as you would want it to. But you know, I think it really underscores just like how challenging these problems that we’re dealing with are and battery development has never been happening faster. It’s a really exciting time for the field.

Alex Wise (AW)  0:33  New iterations of the smartphone often focus on bells, whistles, and other fancy features. One what we all really want for our devices are batteries that last longer. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with technology writer and battery expert Daniel Oberhaus, about the latest developments in the energy storage space. We learn about the role that solid state and lithium silicon batteries may play in the machines of tomorrow, how artificial intelligence may improve battery life, and the progress being made to create recyclable batteries.

Alex Wise (AW)  1:26  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Daniel Oberhaus. Daniel is a science writer and his first book was entitled Extra Terrestrial languages. Daniel, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Daniel Oberhaus (DO)  Thank you so much for having me, Alex.

Alex Wise (AW)  1:39   So you have been a staff writer for Wired magazine for quite some time and have contributed a lot of very interesting pieces specializing in the future of energy. And specifically, I want to talk to you about battery technology because there’s it’s a large palette to work with, why don’t we first dive into solid state batteries. They’re very promising for what reason?

(DO)  2:06  Solid State has been getting a lot of attention lately, due specifically to one company called quantum scape, which recently went public through a special acquisition company a couple months ago. They’re backed by Volkswagen, they’re backed by JB Straubel, who was Tesla employee number seven, if I’m not mistaken. So just really high caliber people working in the battery space are kind of rallying around this company. And the reason for this is that quantum scape believes that they have solved a at this point probably a 40 or 50 year old battery problem, which is how do you create lithium ion cell with a solid electrolyte typically the the batteries that you find in your phone or your computer, these lithium ion cells, they have either a liquid electrolyte or it’s almost like a like a plasticky material. And so the problem with liquid electrolytes is, if you remember, like years ago, when people were having their cell phones, you know, spontaneously catch fire. And people were getting these horrible burns from like, we’re like from vaporizers. Liquid electrolytes and cells are often very flammable. They’re also not incredibly efficient at transporting lithium ions from the cathode to the anode and the cell. So the thinking is, is that if you can get rid of liquid electrolytes and batteries, you can not only make batteries way more efficient, and some tight, in some cases up to, you know, twice the the energy density that you would get from a normal cell. But you can also make them safer, you can also make them last longer, because in liquid electrolytes batteries, as they’re charged and discharged, they develop these things called dendrites, which actually end up destroying the cathode. So basically, solid state is the promise of a super cell, you know, it’s a battery that lasts longer, it delivers more energy, it’s safer, it’s everything you would want from the battery. The problem is, is that for 40 years, no one has really been able to figure out a material that works as a solid electrolyte, a lot of them are brittle, they’re maybe not very good at transporting lithium ions, any sort of problem you can have you name it. And the problem with batteries is when you try to change one thing, you end up messing up a bunch of other things in the battery. So it’s like this constant back and forth of trying to tune it. And so for 40 years, battery scientists have been trying to crack this nut, no one has made one that works, you know, they might last for a couple of cycles had these really promising results. But then, you know, within the equivalent of like a couple of weeks of use of the battery, it’s basically unusable. So they claimed that they’ve accomplished this. And then a few months ago, they released their data to the public for the first time showing they have, you know, of course, it’s one thing to create a battery like this in the laboratory at a small scale. It’s quite another to scale up to the millions, perhaps billions of cells that they would need to, you know, get them into an Eevee. So this is still pretty early days. You know, they’re trying to get this on the market by probably the end of the decade. They think they can do it in about five years, we’ll see. But if they’re correct and if their battery does work as advertised this would effectively double the energy density and just, you know, blow internal combustion engines out of the water in terms of what EBS variable to accomplish in terms of mileage in terms of battery life, it really be kind of that step change in battery technology, we need to push the electric vehicle revolution forward.

AW  5:16  So when I think of solid state technology, I usually think of things that are moving less than the other versions, that is to say, like solid state hard drives, they don’t have a spinning discs or a guitar amplifier, a solid state amplifier won’t have as many moving parts and won’t have, let’s say, a tube like a tube amplifier, what does it mean to be a solid state battery?

DO  5:41  Yeah, I mean, in this case, the solid state is a bit misleading, because it’s not, you know, a typical lithium ion battery won’t have any moving parts either. It’s a purely chemical reaction that occurs when you’re connecting it to a an electric circuit. And so with solid state, all the solid is referring to is the nature of the electrolyte that sits between the positive and negative cathode, sorry, electrode. And so you know, in a typical lithium ion battery, you’re going to have a liquid electrolyte that’s very lithium ion from the negative terminal to the positive terminal, and vice versa during charging and discharging. And in a solid state battery, all that means is simply that that electrolyte is a solid material. So for instance, with quantum scape and their battery, it’s a material it’s a bit difficult to describe it has about the flexibility of a plane card, like if you were to take one between your index finger and your thumb and squeeze it, that’s about the resistance that this electrolyte has, which is completely different than what you’d find in the battery in your phone, for instance, which would be a liquid electrolyte sitting between the terminals. So you know, all sorts of problems come with that when you have to manufacture using a solid electrolyte. Because you both need to create, I guess, like the structural medium for the battery, you can’t have something that oozes all over the place at the same time, you also need to have it be a transport medium for those lithium ions when they’re going from one terminal to another. So it has to be permeable enough to allow that transition to happen for lithium ion. But it also has to be solid enough to, to maintain the structure of the battery. And you know, its integrity as it’s being charged and discharged. So, you know, a really fine line to walk, it ultimately comes down to nano engineering these substances at, you know, just incredibly small scales and making sure every atom literally is placed just so. So, you know, a remarkably hard problem to solve. And if, if this company has, in fact solved it, you know, I think we’re gonna think about batteries as before and after solid states really going to be that big of a difference.

AW  7:36  How scalable do experts think that solid state batteries will be? Because the holy grail will be things like commercial passenger jets and grid type technology where solid state batteries or any kind of battery can store large amounts of energy from renewables?

DO  7:56  Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think the the ultimate test of any technology like this is whether or not you can scale, you know, Ilan Musk has, he really underscores how hard it is to go from having a great technology to scaling. It’s the manufacturing, that is really the the challenging part of this puzzle. You know, the basic science, of course, isn’t easy, but compared to the logistics of making billions of something it to some degree is, and so according to quantum scape, their cell can be manufactured with existing technology, which is called roll to roll. I’m not an expert in this process at all. But basically, it’s a continuous manufacturing process, as opposed to you know, batch where you might just make like X number of cells at one time, and you move it through the assembly line, this is one that essentially just never stops. So they’re saying that you can integrate into existing cell manufacturer lines with their their solution for the solid state. And if that is, in fact, the case, then scaling it, you know, should be relatively straightforward. And I, you know, I would say that it should be taken with a grain of salt because the cell that they unveiled a few months ago, it really is just a single cell. And so the next step for them is actually not to go straight into manufacturing, but to demonstrate that they can take the single plane card sized cell, and then they have to integrate it with, you know, dozens of other ones, I believe it’s around 30 or so. And they have to fit it in to a single cell, which will then comprise like what we would think of as a typical battery. So they’re basically daisy chaining these things together to get the energy levels that you would need to do anything useful, such as heavier than air flight or power in an Eevee. So you know, it’s going to be a stepwise process. The next big one is to demonstrate that they can achieve these really impressive energy density results when there are several of them working in tandem. And then after that, it’s going to be can they actually manufacture at scale? And if they can, in fact, use existing manufacturing processes then, you know, it’s not unthinkable to to believe that these may be in vehicles by 2025 or there abouts.

Music Break  10:03

AW  10:59

This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. And I’m speaking to science writer, Daniel oberhaus. So Daniel, your first book was extra terrestrial languages. And you also wrote a piece for Wired about artificial intelligence and the search for not extraterrestrials, but another holy grail in the battery world, which is to try to predict when a battery is going to degrade before it does, maybe you can kind of unpack what researchers are trying to achieve in using artificial intelligence in predicting battery life, Daniel?


DO  11:37  Sure. So the the challenging thing about batteries is that making a small improvement in one part of the battery, say the cathode or the anode will lead to different outputs in the batteries performance in ways you probably might not have expected, like the batteries seem very simple. But at the chemical level, they’re incredibly complex. And we’re just kind of starting to understand the really nitty gritty details of how changes to battery chemistry affect their performance. And the challenge with this is that there’s a huge number of possible changes you can make to a battery, when we’re talking about things at the atomic level, it’s challenging and a bit boring for a scientist to come into the lab and be like, we’re gonna change this very small little thing in this battery. And then we’re gonna see how it performs over, you know, perhaps hundreds of tests, and then we’re gonna go back or make another little change and just do that over and over and over, just to try to get this, you know, percent or two performance increase out of a battery, AI is really good at taking these kinds of repetitive problems running them incredibly fast. And a lot of times, because of the the models that they have the battery chemistry, you don’t actually even need to run the test, you can just run these simulated tests, and then take the best results from those and then apply those in the labs, you’re only looking at what you can see are the most likely ways to improve the battery performance. One way is to actually change the chemistry of the battery itself and have AI find like these new, essentially chemical recipes for improving battery performance. But another way is to is to use AI to predict how batteries are actually going to break down as their use, we’re really bad right now at predicting, when a lithium ion cell comes off the line, we have no idea if that cell is going to be like the one out of 10,000 in an EB pack that fails and then ends up you know, destroying a bunch of batteries around it because it like catches on fire or something. And so increasingly, they’re using AI to simulate and predict these things based on like the the atomic level structure of the batteries going off. So you can look at a cell and be like, based on these physical characteristics, we predict that it’s going to fail after X number of charge cycles. And that that’s improving really rapidly. They’re doing pretty incredible things with this at Stanford battery lab. And so I think between not only predicting how we can make better battery chemistries with AI, but predicting how batteries will fare once they’ve actually been produced, bring these two things together using computers, you know, machine learning. And you really just get these incredible such changes in performance that will benefit everyone, you’ll have much longer lifetimes on your phones, your your car will be able to go faster. And through it all. It’ll be safer as well.

AW  14:02  Yes, that’s kind of one of the things that I think everybody deals with the most especially during the pandemic, which is their devices and the batteries, and we’re always constantly charging our devices. So when I hear about the latest iPhone having better battery life, it usually is because of something else like in the CPU or just more efficient software, etc. But it’s usually not the long awaited generational leap in battery technology. It seems like we’re still kind of using the same type of lithium ion batteries for the billions of phones that are around the globe. When do you realistically think we’re gonna see a quantum leap in that field? Daniel? You know,

DO  14:46  it’s hard to say and I think it ultimately depends on what the application is. So for instance, when it comes to consumer electronics, the primary thing driving, what ends up in your cell phone, for instance, is probably going to be driven by cost. So it’s going to be what can we get not necessarily the best battery life out of but the best battery life for the money. Whereas for an EV because range anxiety is such a huge factor, the energy density of a battery, it matters a lot in terms of how the consumer thinks about purchasing a car, whereas like for your cell phone, you know, if you can get an extra hour out of a battery for but like the price of the phone was up 20% are most people gonna think that’s worth it, probably not. So like, with consumer devices, I don’t think they’ll ever really come at a time where you’re like I just yesterday, the batteries were terrible. And today, it just feels like we’re living in the future I I expect that we’ll continue to see somewhat plotting progress at the consumer level. But I think there will come a time when your battery will last twice as long. I don’t think that’ll probably happen until the end of the decade, I’d say probably 2025 2027 areas when you might start to see solid state batteries and consumer electronics, I think they’ll because the cost more, you’ll probably see them in high ticket price items such as EBS first, but that said, there is a different innovation happening within batteries in terms of what the battery anode is made out of. And that these are silicon, pure pure silicon anodes, which can store a lot more lithium ion. So you have this better charge life in these batteries. And those actually are starting with consumer products first. And so you have companies like silicon nano that is already partnering with consumer electronics manufacturers to put these next gen batteries into their products. They haven’t gone public and said what those products will be, but you can actually expect those to hit the shelves within the next few years, year or two. So will that blow your mind in terms of the performance you get out of your phone? Probably not. But it you know, it certainly has the opportunity to make it a slightly better experience?

AW  16:44  And are these silicon batteries that you’re talking about? Would these be similar to what you wrote about in wiring in the cobalt free realm? And maybe you can kind of explain why cobalt has been a nasty but necessary evil in the manufacturing of so many batteries.

DO  17:02  Sure. So yeah, and most lithium ion cells you find today in especially in EVs, the, the cathode material is probably going to be an enemy in the sea. And that is it referring to cobalt is referring to the cathode chemistry. And cobalt is prized because when lithium ions are flowing into the cathode when a battery is being used, cobalt is really good at storing them, you can almost like think that the cathode is like a bucket for collecting these lithium ion cells. And cobalt is really good at effectively drawing them in and storing them. The problem with cobalt is is one it’s sourcing, it’s it often comes from the Congo where there’s very problematic labor practices involving you know, children working in the mines, you know, really not great humanitarian conditions there. So there’s really been a push within the battery industry to get cobalt out of cells. This is partly due to not wanting to, you know, have a hand in these, you know, human rights issues that are happening, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But also it’s it’s a business decision. cobalt is one of the most expensive materials in the battery and one of the highest contents by weight. So battery manufacturers can figure out how to get it out of the cell, not only are they doing good for humanity, they’re also doing good for their bottom line. The problem is, is that when you remove cobalt, you, you you battery life usually ends up tanking, you’re just really kneecapping that performance. So there’s there’s been this kind of race to figure out how you can get cobalt out of a battery without tanking the performance. And so they’re just kind of starting to break through. There’s a lot of interesting work going on at the University of Texas in Austin, for instance, on this, they recently just created a cobalt free battery by upping the nickel content. You know, nickel is another ingredient that is very common in pretty much every lithium ion cell you’re gonna find on the shelves today. Problem is it doesn’t have quite as good properties is cobalt. So you really have to once again get into the nano engineering level where it’s not so much about changing the ingredients but changing how the atoms are arranged. And so they’re they’re starting to get better at that. It’s again going to be a question of how do you scale this from the lab to the manufacturing facility, but the groundwork is there so you know, hopefully I think by the end of the decade, you know, cobalt will be a niche substance within the battery manufacturing world as opposed to a dominant one as it is today.

Music Break  19:27

AW  20:07 This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to science writer, Daniel Oberhaus. He’s an expert on battery technology. And his first book is extraterrestrial languages. So, Daniel, you’re talking about cobalt in batteries? And cobalt is not the cleanest of materials. Let’s turn to battery recycling, how are batteries disposed of now? And will we be able to recycle them in the near future?

DO  20:36  Sure. So today, most lithium ion batteries end up in the dump, the overwhelming majority of them in the high 90% are not recycled, they just go straight in the trash there. And the reasons for that? Well, there’s there’s two really, one is that a lot of batteries have materials that would be considered toxic or dangerous. So for instance, if you’re storing spent lithium ion cells, there’s a chance that, you know, gases could build up within the cell and create, you know, just these horrendous fire hazards. So you normally don’t want to store them for any long periods of time. So usually, they just end up getting trashed. That is, of course, a bit of a tragedy, you know, there’s already this massive e waste problem and batteries are, you know, they’re heavy, and they’re also just full of incredibly valuable materials that we had to mined from the earth. So to not figure out a way to reuse these materials is, of course, you know, I really think just like a massive missed opportunity. And fortunately, I’m not the only one who thinks this, there’s a handful of startups right now that are really working on cracking the battery recycling problem. And the reason it’s a problem is, it goes back to the first thing I’d mentioned, which is safety around batteries. And it also is fundamentally a logistics problem is there’s not really a great way to collect these, because if I were to say set up a battery collection facility in the middle of New York, and say, you know, whenever your electronics are done, bring me your batteries, and I’ll get them to the right facility, if at that facility is not co located with the collection site, that means I have to ship these batteries to wherever they’re getting recycled. The problem is, is that batteries are treated as a very high level of like protected waste. So it’s very expensive to ship them because of the associated dangers that come with transporting these cells by rail or air. So you either have to have a recycling facility that’s at the same place that people drop them off, or you have to have a way to get that from the people to the recycling facility. And so there’s various ways around that, you know, one, one company, that is they just set up a first of its kind battery recycling facility in upstate New York, is working on creating local, very small shops where they basically cooked the batteries down into their raw material. And then they ship that material from the batteries to a facility where it can get refined and then basically back into a state where they can put it back into a battery. So then you kind of avoid this logistics problem. But of course, then you still have to have this innovation around how you actually get the materials out of the battery, because it’s not simply just a matter of dropping a cell into a vat of acid. And then you get you know your lithium out and you get your cobalt out and what have you. First batteries are often welded into packs, especially like within EVs, where there’s multiple of them. So it’s really hard to actually just get the battery out of the casing that they’re put into cars with and then once you get them out, then you actually have to separate the individual constituent components. And so that you know that that’s a process, it’s pretty well understood. It’s just today, it hasn’t really been that profitable to do. But you know, it involves essentially leaching this component out, you just move it down a stepwise series of fats, the issue that the recycling industry is really trying to solve is, as we were talking about earlier, it’s not just the chemicals that are in the battery, it’s the way that they’re arranged. So kind of the holy grail of recycling right now is if you can figure out a way to recycle batteries such that you’re not only recovering the material, but you’re recovering the material without destroying the structure, which means that you could, in principle, take this material from a battery, maintain its structure and then get it immediately back into the manufacturing supply chain to be put into another cell. Because right now if you just recover the material, you still have to do a lot of work to get it ready to where it’s going to go back into battery again. And by the time you do that, it becomes so expensive. You may as well just mined from the earth and gotten new material, which is why this has been such a hard problem. But there are companies working on it with I think that are going to be the ones that end up cracking this for the first time.

AW  24:33  So you mentioned lithium silicon batteries, Daniel and one of the big challenges for EVs to become more ubiquitous is charging them faster. There are some breakthroughs on the horizon are there?

DO  24:46

There are – Yes, I mean, the EV industry needs to kind of crack two main things for electric vehicles to become commonplace in the United States. One of them is range anxiety, so you don’t want to be driving on a road trip and then your car back out in the middle of the desert, because you can only go 300 miles on a charge. The problem is, is even if you don’t break down in the middle of the desert and you go to a charging station, you’re still going to be sitting there probably around 15 to 20 minutes at least take your battery up to a usable state again. And you know, going to a gas station is enough of a pain for most people. And that takes five minutes. But if you’re asking people to spend 20, maybe 30 minutes sitting, wait for their car to charge again, that’s kind of a non starter for a lot of people. So cracking, fast charging is going to be key to mass Evie adoption. And a lot of that comes down to the chemical structure of the battery itself. And so they’re actually a lot of innovation came out of Formula One racing or formula II in this case with electric race cars, because they need really fast charging on the on the track, it can only take a couple of minutes. And so they’ve had just some amazing breakthroughs and battery scientists working in the context of really high caliber racing of figuring out how to get batteries that can shuttle lithium ions from the cathode to the anode as fast as possible. And a lot of that just comes down to increasing the silicon content and having these silicon anode batteries. And the reason for that is is that silicon, compared to what wood is typically used, carbon is just really good as soaks up lithium ions like a sponge. You know, we’ve known this for a while, the problem is, is that when they soak up these lithium ions that the battery swells, and that can create all sorts of structural problems, you end up cracking in short circuiting the battery, you know, all this, all this nasty stuff starts happening. And so, you know, once again, it comes down to nano engineering, these silicon anodes to be able to absorb all this lithium and have these fast charging capabilities without all this detrimental stuff that’s happening as a side effect. And so they’re just really starting to crack that, you know, I would I wouldn’t be surprised if we have, you know, commonplace 10 minute charging within the next few years. And then probably they’re saying we can get this down to just a couple of minutes in the future. So probably by the end of the decade, I would say you know, you can collect have a car that you can charge within, you know, 270 5% charge within five, five or six minutes, which you know, compared to 30 minutes today is just really an incredible breakthrough. But we’re just on the cusp of that and it’s ultimately gonna come down to this kind of chemical engineering that’s happening and a very niche area electric racing right now.

AW  27:20  That sounds kind of slow to me. I’m hearing the next nine years, we’re gonna go from 30 minutes to five minutes. I’m hoping to hear it in next year or two. But it’s longer than that before we can just do a quick supercharged for these EVs.

DO  27:35  Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing with the battery space is that nothing ever moved as fast as you would want it to. But you know, I think it really underscores just like how challenging these problems that we’re dealing with are and nine years might sound like a long time but in the grand scheme of things. Battery development has never been happening faster. It’s a really exciting time for the field.

AW  27:53  Well, you’re younger than me so nine years doesn’t sound that long. Daniel Oberhaus thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

DO  28:00  Thanks so much for having me, Alex.

Narrator  28:16  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Moby, Victor Wooten and Tom Waits, check out our website at www.SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcasts. Visit our archives they are to hear Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.