ECS Podcast – Khalil Amine on Next Generation Li-ion Batteries

While you may be unfamiliar with Khalil Amine, he has made an immense impact in your life if you happen to use batteries in any way.

As a researcher with a vision of where the science can be applied in the market, Amine has been monumental in developing and moving some of the biggest breakthroughs in battery technology from the lab to the marketplace.

Amine is currently head of the Technology Development Group in the Battery Technology Department at Argonne National Laboratory. From 1998-2008 he was the most cited scientist in the world in the field of battery technology.

He is the chair of the organizing committee for the 18th International Meeting on Lithium Batteries being held this June in Chicago.

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Five Questions for Khalil Amine

Without the invention of the rechargeable battery, what would the world look like today?

Certainly, it would look very different. The rechargeable battery has enabled so many different technologies. Think of cellphones and telecommunications – without the battery I don’t think we’d have the convenience of calling each other and exchanging information. The same thing is true for cars. Even though we have conventional gasoline-based cars – without the lead-acid battery, it would be extremely difficult to start the cars. The same thing has happened with any technologies that we have limited access to, like satellites or implantable medical devices. Batteries have really impacted the lives of everybody.

What’s your secret for moving new technologies into the marketplace?

What I do with my team is we usually develop new materials that begin with fundamental understanding, but I always look for an opportunity where this invention can make it in the market. Once we have something that looks very promising, what I try to do is identify a collaborator in the industry that has an interest. It could be start-ups that have an interest in getting into the battery business – and if you really want to get into the battery business as a start-up company, you have to have something new that nobody has. So once we have convinced ourselves that the technology can be applied to specific applications, then I usually communicate with a potential partner that I could collaborate with. Not only do you have to be a scientist, but you have to have a vision where the technology can be applied in the market.

How can we use these technologies to address climate change?

There is a tremendous amount of energy that can be stored from wind, solar, the ocean – these are all ample sources of energy. One of the barriers is figuring out how to store it in a big way and I think rechargeable batteries will play a big role. If you look in the U.S., 70 percent of the oil being consumed is being consumed for transportation. So if we are able to electrify vehicles, we will make a significant reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions. The technology is there. Of course for grid application, cost is very critical.

Is there something about Tesla that you think will make them successful in electric vehicles?

I give them a lot of credit, they actually put a lot of pressure on the car companies that have been around for hundreds of years. The concept they have is very interesting – it has a lot of chemistry but it has some safety issues, so the way to address that is to go small. That’s why they make small batteries, but they develop a design to control them. Because of that, they were able to enable long drive range, which is very important in electric vehicles. They have a really cool design too; the cars are really beautiful. I think they’re on the right track.

What makes lithium-air batteries such a promising technology?

Lithium-air is the “holy grail,” that’s what people say about it. It’s a simple concept but it’s very complicated. If you put in a closed system, you can triple, easily, the energy density of lithium-ion. That’s very important. Energy is cost. We do have electric cars in the road now but people aren’t buying them because they’re expensive, especially the battery. If you really want to reduce the cost, you really have to increase the energy. To increase the energy for the same energy density of a pack, the size of the pack would be much smaller, and therefor you’re not down the cost of all materials within the battery. You can make significant cost reduction – 40 or 50 percent. Lithium-air offers this opportunity. If you have three times more energy than conventional lithium-ion, you would expect significant cost reduction. But lithium-air has so many challenges. But if you look at the work done on the lithium-air battery in the last five years, the understanding has been greatly expanded. There’s been a tremendous amount of progress but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

*Slide image via Argonne National Laboratory

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