Lithium-ion batteries have become a cornerstone of backing up wind and solar power, but one of the scientists who won a Nobel Prize last week for helping develop the technology says a world of 100% renewables may not be desirable.
"I’m not sure you ever want to go to 100% of anything," said Stan Whittingham, a longtime professor of chemistry and materials science at the State University of New York’s Binghamton campus, known as Binghamton University, during a phone interview after the Nobel announcement. Yet he said he does see the possibility of long-duration energy storage with lithium batteries — and overall levels of renewables — far beyond what we have now.
Whittingham was a researcher for Exxon Mobil Corp. when he patented the first rechargeable lithium-ion battery — a technology that has become a cornerstone of the energy sector, serving as the power source for electric cars in addition to its use in grid-scale storage and electronic devices.
"Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionised our lives since they first entered the market in 1991. They have laid the foundation of a wireless, fossil fuel-free society, and are of the greatest benefit to humankind," said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in its announcement of the award.
Whittingham was awarded along with two other scientists — John Goodenough and Akira Yoshino — whose innovations built upon his work and led to the battery’s commercialization.
Whittingham’s work at Exxon came at a time of rising doubt about how much longer oil supplies would hold out, and the company was trying to develop clean technologies as alternatives, including solar power and electric cars.
That era would eventually give way to one of plentiful oil and gas, while Exxon would shut down its clean energy labs and publicly cast doubts on the science behind global warming.
Whittingham speaks highly of his old employer, noting that it has revived some of its old activities. The company says it spends over $1 billion annually on next generation renewable technologies.
"When I was there, the CEO was very supportive of alternative energy and studying climate issues. And I don’t know whether they’re turning back again now," he said. "But it’s a great company, run very well."
Whittingham’s breakthrough battery used the concept of "intercalation" — a process by which lithium ions moved in and out of molecular spaces within the cathode, allowing for a high energy density.
The prototype was too explosive and too costly for widespread use. Later variations from co-winners of the Nobel helped mitigate that, with landmark improvements to the cathode and anode.
Born in the United Kingdom in 1941, Whittingham came to the United States as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. He’s still working on lithium-ion batteries: Two current projects funded partly by the Energy Department are seeking to make leaps on battery performance and storage capacity.
Reached by phone from a battery conference in Atlanta, Whittingham spoke with E&E News about his Nobel victory, the Trump administration, an all-renewable system, electric vehicles and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
What’s it like to win the Nobel?
Overwhelming might be one away of putting it. Right now I’m at an electrochemicals society meeting in Atlanta. Obviously everyone knows there. They had the awards ceremony where they made me stand up for the group, and a number of other activities there. I basically can’t go out of my room without being swarmed over for photographs.
When you first made your breakthrough on lithium-ion, what did you think at the time about its potential?
We knew it was big. When we made the initial discovery, I went to New York City to meet with a committee of the board of Exxon to explain what we did. Within a few days they decided to fund an engineering activity and in the end a manufacturing activity. They very much looked at research in those days like drilling an oil well: maybe 10% will work. But those 10% may make a lot of money. So they were very supportive of research back in the ’70s.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has introduced bills that seek to streamline mining of lithium and other battery minerals in the U.S. That’s more on the mining side.
That’s the critical side. I gather there’s some cobalt either in Utah or Idaho, companies are trying to get that going. When I got in the battery business, all the lithium in the U.S. came from North Carolina. When you looked at all the lithium companies in the U.S., the headquarters are all in North Carolina. That stopped when the brines from South America were clearly much cheaper. But my understanding is those mines are now reopening.
Do you find that encouraging?
I think so, yes. It’s just national security. You need to control your pipeline of materials and everything else yourself.
Some say lithium-ion batteries are not practical for long-duration grid storage of 10 hours or more. Do you agree?
I think they’re wrong. Tesla in South Australia has shown that you can store a lot of energy and shift it. I was at a facility just south of Saratoga Springs in New York this summer. I guess you folks call it arbitrage, where you’re buying the power at a low cost and selling it at high cost, at the peak. It clearly can be used in places like NYC if they want to be safe from the next batch of hurricanes, they need to have energy for at least eight hours to 24 hours in critical applications.
Is there any technology that you find most promising for long-duration storage?
Very clearly, pumped hydro is the ideal way to go, because you can store gigawatt-hours of it. But I’m not sure when the last pumped hydro system was built in the U.S.
People have looked at things like flywheels, but they’re expensive and short duration. People looked at supercaps. Again, very short duration. There’s been work on redox flow batteries, but they would have an even bigger footprint than lithium-ion. And they’re a bit like a chemical plant, so you need professionals to look after them.
We visited this lithium-ion facility in Saratoga Springs. We asked them, what’s the largest maintenance issue? And they said, "Mowing the grass around the facility." So basically it needs no maintenance. That’s the big advantage of it.
If the nation were to set a 100% renewable goal, would that be desirable?
I’m not sure you ever want to go to 100% of anything. You’d like to go to a majority, but you’ve always got to have a backup, if only for security reasons. If you have a house you may have gas or gasoline generator there for emergencies. You’d never want to go to 100%, you’re locking yourself into a likely problem coming up. But no, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t go to two-thirds renewable within the next 20 or 30 years.
But do you think it’s possible to power the energy system entirely from renewables?
In the right places in the country, you can do it. You have to store a lot. In other places you might have to use wave energy. But it’s going to be a bit more difficult in New York state, with big cities to do that. But New York has set the bar as the state with the strongest desire and law to go green.
Lithium-ion also is used in EVs. How fast do you think the transition to EVs will happen?
We’ve had lots of discussions on this. People typically keep their cars for 10 or 12 years, some people even longer. I think it’s going to take two decades before you get a substantial number on the road just because people don’t change their cars very often. You’re seeing it already in places like California, on the West Coast where the climate is very conducive to electric vehicles, you’ll see that happening very fast.
What do you see as the major barriers that need to come down before EVs really proliferate?
Clearly cost is one. That’s the major one. People talk about range anxiety. How far they’ll go. And if you’re in the country and you have to drive several hundred miles in a day, then that’s another issue with electric vehicles. One suspects in time that in places like New York, you’ll have autonomous vehicles. You may not own your vehicle. You may just get one like a scooter today. You’ll drive it for half a hour and then someone else will pick it up. Maybe this is something where Washington, D.C., can set an example. By encouraging electric vehicles in D.C., and maybe, say, on Pennsylvania Avenue, use only electric vehicles. And maybe have the White House use electric vehicles to commute from the White House to the Capitol.
The Trump administration has a different stance. Can it defeat the electric car?
They can try to. But I get the impression that Detroit knows that if they’re going to survive on the world stage they have to follow the world’s standards, not necessarily the standards in the U.S. My understanding is most of the cars coming out of Detroit meet the California standards even if they sell them in other places in the U.S. So, no — if GM and Ford want to survive on the world stage, they have to develop cars for the world.
Concerns have been raised about cobalt extracted from Congo for EV batteries. How are automakers going to resolve this?
I don’t know what their leaders are thinking, but what’s going to drive it no matter what is price. I think you know they use NMC — nickel, manganese and cobalt. Over the last two years, the amount of cobalt has dropped by 50%. It’s really a cost issue now. You get the cobalt out, they can decrease the price of the batteries. So the only place they’re going to keep using cobalt is in the cellphones. There’s a huge initiative for the auto companies to get the cobalt out completely, and the Department of Energy has a large funded program to reduce the amount of cobalt to close to zero if not zero.
So there’s no insuperable technical barrier to creating batteries without cobalt?
You still may want 1% to 5% in there, but you don’t need it to be 30%. One-third was what it used to be a couple of years ago. As you do that, the nickel content comes up, and nickel’s getting more expensive.
What do you make of national politics around decarbonization right now?
There’s so much smoke it’s difficult to see who’s doing what. We need, really, to have a technical scientific workshop and get the politics out of it for a while and see what’s really feasible. And I mean it’s got to be economically feasible. You can’t change people’s lives upside down. With the present White House, I’m not sure he’s interested in facts that get in the way.
What was it like to work for Exxon?
In those days it was great. We had great colleagues. It was an atmosphere where you could do fundamental research, focus on some long-term goal. If you wanted equipment, they got it for you. They built up the groups. Those were the heydays of industrial research.
Exxon wanted to build electric vehicles, and we were all excited about that. At that time it was probably the largest manufacturer of solar photovoltaic cells. They did a lot of really forefront climate change research.
At Exxon we built the first rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. I think the Nobel got it clear. We worked on the cell system. Then John Goodenough came up with the cathode that made it economically viable. The Japanese put all the investment and time in to make a product that would sell and make money.
Exxon has cast doubts on the science of global warming and funded groups that do the same. What view do you take of that?
I think they’re a magnificent company. They’re very solidly run. When I was there, the CEO was very supportive of alternative energy and studying climate issues.
In the long run, it’s in their interest [to take the lead on climate action]. BP may be taking more of a forward attitude. But it’d be very much in Exxon’s interest to take the lead rather than have others attack them about it.
What gives you hope for dealing with climate change?
More and more people are aware of the issues there, and as it affects people more they will take action. You can see it all around. Most people understand there’s climate change. There may be disagreement around how much of it is linked to humans. But I think most people agree there is a serious climate change. I used to go to Lake Louise in Canada every year. Each time I went, the glaciers were farther and farther away. People see the floods we’re getting. The hotter spells, colder spells. The whole climate is getting messed up, and I think people are realizing there’s a real issue there. I’m optimistic things are going to happen for the good.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.