February 13, 2009

Battery Research Offers Jolt

By: by Jennifer Dlouhy, Washington Bureau, Times Union


WASHINGTON - When Thomas Edison started the generator at his Pearl Street Power Station in Manhattan more than a century ago, he launched an energy revolution in New York, helping to make the state a national leader in developing new ways to power America.

Now, as Congress plans to spend billions of dollars to rev up the economy - and jump start research into alternative power - New York is once again poised to take a major role devising new energy technologies that could fuel everything from cars to airplanes.

Research groups across the state are in for a jolt of at least $2 billion for advanced batteries that has been included in the $789 billion stimulus bill winding its way through Congress. Under the stimulus plan, which Democratic leaders hope to pass by week's end, the Department of Energy would dole out the money in the form of loan guarantees and direct grants for work to develop advanced battery technology.

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, an energy expert in Congress who supports the spending, said New York researchers are well-positioned to get the battery money. The federal dollars, which are not limited to any particular battery chemistry or technology, "can advance all kinds of opportunities" in the state, he said.

"New York ranks high on the list of states that is poised to move into this new era of energy thinking," Tonko said. "We've got the academic community, we have the public and private investment in research and development."

The federal dollars could go to scientists using X-rays to peer deep inside working batteries at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, and work to boost the power capacity of batteries at the GE Global Research Center in Niskayuna.

Other possible beneficiaries include the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, which is designing electrodes with bigger surface areas for more powerful batteries, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, where researchers are developing a paper-thin device.

The federal investment in advanced batteries research dovetails with Gov. David Paterson's call last month for an upstate research consortium on hybrid electric batteries and energy storage technologies that "will help reshape the upstate economy."

Just as central California became a hub of microelectronics development and earned the nickname Silicon Valley, New York is poised to lead the advanced battery frontier, said Jim Misewich, associate lab director for basic energy sciences at Brookhaven.

"New York has all the elements to really build a Lithium Valley," Misewich said. By tapping into businesses such as General Electric Co. and IBM Corp., and leveraging work being done at public and private universities across the state, "we have the capability to potentially weave together all the intellectual elements ... and put together a really powerful New York battery industry," he said.

Congress envisions the federal dollars will propel the domestic development of new safe and efficient batteries that can power electric vehicles.

Right now, researchers in New York are trying to clear a major hurdle for using battery technology in cars: how to combine the power needed for quick acceleration with the energy needed to fuel a car over hundreds of miles.

Traditionally, there has been a "trade-off," said Glen Merfeld, manager of the chemical energy systems laboratory at GE Global Research. "You can have batteries that are much better at storing power, and batteries that are much better at storing energy," he said.

GE researchers now are working on a dual device that combines the power of lithium-ion batteries, like those used widely in consumer electronics, with the long-term energy storage of sodium metal halide batteries. The project is on track to enter a demonstration phase in 2011.

At the UAlbany NanoCollege, Pradeep Haldar is leading work to build better batteries from the atom up - by developing materials that boast bigger surface areas. When used in a battery, that bigger surface area translates to more space for electrons to flow between each end of the device - and ultimately more power.

The NanoCollege also is studying how to design an electrolyte for use between the two battery ends "with the right molecular structure, so they can enter the pores of this large surface area," Haldar said.

Similarly scaled projects are underway at Brookhaven, where more than 2,000 people annually conduct experiments using and X-rays and other light waves produced by the National Synchrotron Light Source.

Researchers are using the X-rays to examine what is happening deep within batteries, as part of a bid to boost the number of times they can be charged and discharged.

"We can peer into batteries by using X-rays and see what's happening to the materials that make up batteries as they are operating," Misewich said. "That's really important if you want to understand why they're dying."

The advanced battery research grants could help underwrite that research at Brookhaven or propel work by Robert Linhardt, an RPI professor, to refine a paper battery.

The nascent paper battery technology has big benefits over traditional batteries - namely that they "don't contain flammable solvents or acids or corrosives" and are "nontoxic," Linhardt said.

The devices, composed of a carbon-based electrode bonded to paper, can be cut in half and still function and be molded to the shape inside mechanical devices.

Jennifer A. Dlouhy can be reached at 202-263-6400 or by e-mail at [email protected]

Leading research sites

Making batteries more powerful and lighter is the focus of scientists locally.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is developing batteries made of paper.

General Electric Co.'s Global Research Center is seeking to boost the power capacity of batteries.

The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University at Albany is designing electrodes with bigger surface areas for more powerful batteries.