The burning question: How to build better batteries

Concept of energy storage system. Renewable energy - photovoltaics, wind turbines and Li-ion battery container in fresh nature. 3d rendering.

To achieve a “green” economy, the combination of renewable energy sources and enhanced battery storage shows promise for transforming the way we live. Electric vehicle production is expected to increase thirtyfold by 2030, while emerging battery technologies like zinc, lithium-ion and bio-based cells are transforming off-grid power generation. The global battery race is on for bigger storage capacity, faster charging and cheaper price points, so we asked academic and commercial leaders in the battery arena the same burning question: What are your teams doing to advance battery technology in support of a healthier, greener planet? Here is what they told us:

Don Sadoway

John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry, MIT

Canadian Don Sadoway’s research seeks to establish the scientific underpinnings for technologies that make efficient use of energy and natural resources in an environmentally sound manner. This spans engineering applications and fundamental science. The overarching theme of his work is electrochemistry in non-aqueous media.

“My focus is on inventing new battery chemistry that will address the shortcomings of today’s lithium-ion technology, which is proving to be inadequate in large-format settings such as EVs and stationary storage. My design parameters include cost and sustainability right from the outset. The main challenge that I face is unwillingness to fund the necessary work. Research sponsors and investors alike suffer from the aversion to bold, imaginative concepts that are not risk-free. When likelihood of success is a key determinant for investment, then radical innovation will be filtered out. That leads to innovation paralysis.”

Ryan Brown

Co-Founder, Salient Energy

A startup based in Kitchener, Ontario, Salient Energy’s proprietary cathode materials store energy in zinc, which allows their batteries to have relatively high energy density. It also allows for traditional battery designs that are compatible with standard manufacturing equipment. This means that a cheaper, safer and longer-lasting battery can be made in existing battery factories around the world.

“At Salient Energy, we believe that stationary energy storage is an important problem that deserves its own solution. That’s why we worked from the atom up to build a new type of battery that would prioritize a low lifetime cost and intrinsic safety. We live in a world where solar and wind can produce electricity cheaper than fossil fuels. Our goal is to make the cost of storing this clean, inexpensive electricity so low that there is simply no economic reason for fossil fuel–based generation to exist.

“I think the biggest challenge facing energy innovators is how difficult it can be to display rapid progress. It can take years to develop a commercial prototype, and this is just the start of a multi-year process of getting significant market penetration. Since the opportunities in energy are so massive, it ends up being worth it, but it is super important to find the right partners and investors who understand this timeline. We are extremely lucky to be supported by a combination of awesome investors, great corporate partners and generous government programs, but I worry that the rate of innovation in energy is below where it could be due to the rarity of this support.”

Paul Paterson
Founder, Redrock Power Systems

Redrock’s mission is to develop and commercialize fuel cell solutions for use in the marine industry by working with the world’s best suppliers and industry-leading customers. Redrock’s founders have decades of heavy-duty fuel cell development and systems integration experience, and they’re dedicated to bringing that experience to the marine market. The P.E.I.-based company recently received a $15,000 grant from Transport Canada for its Niagara ferry proposal.

“Our company is developing high-power hydrogen fuel cell systems particularly suited for maritime applications. We believe that battery technology is capable of handling a portion of the short-distance maritime market, but battery solutions become too big, heavy and expensive when scaled up to the sizes needed for longer distances. Hydrogen fuel cells are a lighter weight solution and simpler to scale to higher energy requirements. 

“The market for this technology is worldwide, but we first need a local demonstration project in order to refine the product and to build credibility. This is one of our key challenges: Despite the (complex) myriad of funding opportunities available in Canada, it is exceptionally difficult to attract a Canadian vessel operator in order to trial this advanced technology. This is why we are looking to operate our own fuel cell ferry between
St. Catharines and Toronto.” 

Geoff Osborne
Director, Strategy & Operations, NRStor

Toronto-based NRStor is an industry-leading energy storage project developer, providing innovative solutions based on a unique depth of expertise in energy storage technologies and the benefits they can provide across the supply chain.

“Ensuring there is enough electricity supply to meet demand on a second-to-second basis is a balancing act (literally) for grid operators. Today, their task is made more difficult with the growth of intermittent renewables, unpredictable weather, increasingly sensitive electrical loads, aging infrastructure – and no effective means to store energy en masse. Think of trying to run a retail store without warehouse space. That’s how the grid operates in real-time today. 

“Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) including energy storage have the opportunity to transform our electricity grid, adding much needed flexibility, which can lower costs, improve reliability and enable a more sustainable energy ecosystem.  

“At NRStor we work with industry-leading manufacturers that develop batteries (chemical), flywheels (mechanical/kinetic) and compressed air energy storage (mechanical/thermal). We have deployed several first-of-kind technologies and are working on exciting projects that reduce costs for our industrial sector, improve reliability and lower costs for residential customers, take remote communities off diesel fuel, and offer lower-cost clean alternatives to large-scale GHG-emitting generators (eg. coal/gas).

“Energy storage technology prices continue to drop dramatically, while performance continues to improve. Major barriers impeding the growth of the sector are lack of experience, education and regulation. Right now our energy marketplace is not properly designed to accommodate or effectively value DERs, and we do not have the decades of experience we have with traditional infrastructure. The fast-paced growth of the energy storage market has also created issues for regulators who cannot keep up with the fast rate of technological innovation. However, according to Bill Gates, this degree of innovation is necessary to achieve an ‘energy miracle,’ which could allow us to ‘invent [our] way out of the coming collision with planetary climate change.’ 1

“Despite these barriers, storage resources are still growing rapidly around the world – often led by sustainable energy policy shifts or private-sector investment. In Australia, Elon Musk and Tesla recently finished building the world’s biggest battery in less than 100 days.2 Projects like this are becoming more and more common as utilities, regulators, the private-sector and academia begin to recognize the real potential of energy storage. In recent years, many progressive utilities have announced massive energy storage targets. The U.S. market alone saw a 232 per cent increase in energy storage deployments from 2018 to 2019.3

“While climate change may be one of the biggest challenges we face, it may also be one of the best opportunities for us to take a leadership role in developing tomorrow’s low-carbon economy – enabled with innovative energy storage.”   

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