Battery technologies that are saving lives

Battery technology innovations are saving lives. At the forefront of these innovations in science and medicine is one of the world’s leading energy storage researchers and most successful women inventors in the United States. Dr. Esther Takeuchi, a State University of New York distinguished professor in materials science and engineering at Stony Brook University joins Hari to discuss the evolution of battery technology and the future of renewable energy.

TRANSCRIPT

Battery technology innovations are saving lives.

At the forefront of these innovations in science and medicine is one of the world's leading energy-storage researchers and most successful women inventors in the United States.

Joining us now is Esther Takeuchi, State University of New York Distinguished Professor in Materials Science and Engineering at Stony Brook University.

So we should start out by saying your work is literally in the hearts or in the chests of thousands and millions of people.

You helped create the battery that's in the defibrillator in what we would consider pacemakers, right?

Correct.

That's right.

And these are amazing batteries because they're not the kind that I can just sort of replace.

They have to be incredibly durable.

They have to be incredibly small, and what went into thinking about how to make that and that challenge?

The challenge for the defibrillator battery was significant in that, at that time, pacemaker batteries were very widespread, but pacemaker batteries only have to deliver about one million times smaller energy than the defibrillator, so we needed a very high-powered battery that could last 5 years without being recharged, so...

Because these literally give you a jolt if they see your heart stopping.

Correct.

That's correct.

It's a lifesaving shock to the heart.

Okay.

You've been in this energy- storage field for a long time.

Why?

Why this particular field?

It ended up being a bit of serendipity in that my background was chemistry and electrochemistry, and the opportunity to study batteries just matched extremely well with my scientific background.

You've got more than 120, I don't know, you can update the number...

A hundred and fifty.

A hundred and fifty different patents in this space...

Yes.

Correct.

...and you're thinking about, you know, batteries on a larger scale.

Now batteries seem to be the question that are underpinning all of our forays into renewable energy.

Right.

So batteries are going to play and do play a key role in two areas.

One is electric vehicles, and then, ultimately, you want the electric vehicle charged by clean energy, so that means introduction of solar, wind, which inherently are intermittent, so you need a battery -- some way to store that energy that you can then deliver later to the electric vehicle.

Because when there's a cloud, the solar panel is not as efficient.

When it's not windy, the wind turbine is not working, so when it's extra windy or very sunny, you're going to have to put it somewhere.

Correct.

So right now, it seems that the batteries are, you know, there's Powerwall by Tesla.

There's other kind of washing-machine-sized batteries.

They're pretty dirty when it comes to actually how they're made.

Yeah.

How do we improve that process?

So we've been thinking about that in two ways.

One is, we've really been focused on identifying and testing, developing environmentally friendly materials that can be used as batteries, especially for grid-level storage where maybe the battery can afford to be a little bit bigger, but it needs to be low-cost and environmentally friendly, so the basic elements that we're using are critical, so we focus on things like iron and iron oxides.

The second thing we're doing is really thinking about how to possibly reuse or regenerate batteries so they don't all end up in landfills, that maybe there's a way to recover more than just the elements but some parts or subparts, you know, modules, and regenerate them to extend their life.

You know, is there a way... Do you see, that, you know, kind of solving this battery equation could be the thing that gets us off of fossil fuels because once it becomes cheap enough to, well, get the energy from the Sun or the wind, but really cheap enough to store it, that we could actually make this transition away from, say, burning coal or natural gas?

I'm so glad you asked that question because I believe that it's absolutely going to happen and sooner than most people realize.

We're going to transition from a fossil-fuel-based energy economy to what I call an electricity economy where we're going to be generating electricity directly by solar, by wind, feeding it directly into batteries and then EVs, and that will be the dominant energy footprint, and it's going to be here before we know it.

Because right now, even the people that buy the electric cars because they want to do right, most often, they're plugging into an electrical grid that is powered by fossil fuels.

Correct.

It's not necessarily coming from the sunshine that's captured on their rooftops.

That's exactly right.

So as we integrate renewables, then we go full circle into having a fossil-fuel-free energy economy.

Do you end up having to build an entirely new battery, or can you make incremental changes into the composition of existing ones?

We're doing both.

We are definitely making incremental changes.

For example, we're trying to extend life, increase capacity.

The latest thing is, we're thinking about how to charge batteries faster, but then we're also looking at new generations of materials and batteries that don't exist today to really go beyond the current boundaries that define what we think of as lithium ion.

You know, the irony is also that these things have become so common in our hands, and at this point, we almost treat them as disposable objects.

I mean, there's a planned obsolescence from the manufacturers.

They know that they're going to get a little slower in 2 to 3 years, and they know that we're going to go out and buy another one, right, and one of the biggest problems that people have, and Apple even started to address this, is battery loss and the ability for us to recharge quickly or recharge fully.

Yeah.

And we're throwing away a computer...

Yes.

...because the battery is not working like it was 3 years ago.

Correct.

So how do we fix... I mean, on a... This is the thing that we actually have in our hands, right?

Yeah.

But we're throwing it away really because the battery doesn't work, and we can't change it.

So I think there are several things that contribute to that.

One is fundamental understanding of batteries still needs to be done.

The basic research to truly understand the limiting mechanisms is still underway.

The second thing is, it's kind of a trade-off in design.

How big do we want the battery?

How complex do we want the phone?

So the more complex we make the phone, the more energy it consumes.

It drains the battery faster, wears the battery out, so there's some middle ground that would extend the life of the battery perhaps, but maybe that's not what the consumers look for.

Maybe they want that smaller, fancier phone and are willing to sacrifice turning it in every 2 years.

All right.

Esther Takeuchi, chemical engineer and professor at Stony Brook University, thanks so much.

Thank you.