Funding for Advanced Battery Research Hangs in Balance: Page 2 of 2

National laboratories and universities are making progress in the research to move beyond lithium ion batteries, but their scientific breakthroughs will continue only with renewed federal funding.

“The bigger story is that we learned some lessons from that, and we changed our direction,” said Crabtree. “The lesson we learned is that on any given battery, it is very hard to meet all the performance specs that you want. We have changed, in our second five years, in recognition of this challenge (and our goal) to make batteries that meet all requirements simultaneously. The way we will do that is to understand, design, and control battery material performance at the atomic and molecular level,” said Crabtree.

A New Approach

Crabtree notes that battery research has been undertaken using an Edisonian approach. “Let’s try this material, let’s try that material, let’s tweak a material that we know about, and we will try to improve the performance. So far, that has not produced batteries that meet multiple performance metrics,” said Crabtree. “So we are trying something new. We are going to start at the atomic and molecular level and understand it well enough to design batteries from the bottom up—make our materials atom by atom and molecule by molecule, where every atom and molecule has a prescribed role in meeting a performance spec,” he explained.

One of the strengths of the JCESR has been its transfer of laboratory research results to several startup companies, such as Form Energy, Blue Current, and Sepion Technologies—each of which has benefited from the JCESR research findings.

Innovation

It is a popular myth that scientific breakthroughs and technical innovation come primarily from a genius individual, working in solitude in a garage-based laboratory. The reality is that the majority of important new technologies and innovations got their start in a national laboratory, doing basic science research and funded by federal tax dollars. In many ways, the model started during World War II with the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), which focused scientific research into the war effort. Innovations like radar, battlefield medicine, bombsights, and even the atomic bomb were the result.

After the war in 1945, Vannevar Bush—who had been the head of the OSRD—wrote, “Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn.” His report, Science, the Endless Frontier, was delivered to President Truman in 1945. It became the blueprint for government-sponsored scientific research for the next 70 years.

George Crabtree, JCSER
Pictured is George Crabtree, director of JCSER. (Image source: JCSER)

Basic Research

“There is a very definite place for government funding of basic research, and that place is at the pre-competitive level,” said Crabtree. “We are working on next-generation batteries, for example. But we are not going to make the next-generation battery—we leave that to some commercial enterprise that sees a good idea and an opportunity, based on our research, and wants to commercialize it,” said Crabtree. “We are not picking winners and losers. We are simply opening up the space of possibilities that the private sector will choose from,” he added.

Federal funding of scientific research has, sadly, become highly politicized. The decision to continue to fund JCESR for another five years will be made within the next month. Hopefully, those in control of the purse-strings will consider the words of Vannevar Bush from 1945: “New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science.”

Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

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